In McCain's corner, one long day

Behind the scenes as an insurgency watches its moment seem to pass.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.

Inside his hotel suite at the Beverly Hilton, Sen. John McCain was smiling.

“Gotta soldier on,” he said to me at the bar. He knew things weren’t going his way.

“That’s one of the reasons why exit polls are so great,” he said. “So you can prepare yourself.”

All day, exit polls had been trickling in showing that McCain wasn’t going to have a good night. New York wasn’t going to go his way. Not the popular vote, not the delegate count. Ohio and Missouri, where he’d hoped for upsets, were in Gov. George W. Bush’s pocket.

He knew he wasn’t going to win the GOP primary in California, but he thought he might get the popular “beauty contest” vote, proving he would be a stronger candidate against Gore. But it didn’t look like that was going to happen.

He even lost Maine.

“That surprises me,” he said, as he did win every other New England state.

“Cindy,” he said to his wife, “we should have sent you to Maine.”

“We won the two states I visited, Rhode Island and Vermont,” she joked.

“What were we thinking?” he returned. “Why didn’t we send Cindy to Maine?” He used the line again later in his speech.

CNN reported from the Bush campaign that a
Bush-designated go-between, Sen. Phil Gramm — reported to
be a friend of both Bush and McCain — was going to broker a
peace between the two men. But McCain’s respect for Gramm
knows bounds. Gramm, whom McCain had
supported in Gramm’s 1996 run, hadn’t even let McCain know
before hitching himself to the Bush train and campaigning for
Bush in South Carolina. The idea that the Bushies would send Gramm to
smooth things over was a joke.

The McCains watched the returns on television, where pundits blamed his loss on last week’s speech in which he hammered Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as “agents of intolerance.” McCain didn’t think that was an accurate assessment.

“It was those ads,” he said, referring to the anti-McCain TV ads two of Bush’s biggest supporters put on the air in media markets from New York to the Bay Area in California. His campaign has complained to the Federal Election Commission that they violate campaign laws.

McCain’s pollster, Bill McInturff, said that whether it was the speech or the ads, McCain had four bad days last week, in which his poll numbers stalled. McInturff assessed that the “dirty ads” — funded with an infusion of cash from Texas fat cats and organized by a bunch of Bush allies — would come to haunt the Bush campaign.

“Just like in South Carolina, they won the evening and lost the war,” McInturff said. “When people find out more about the [ads' funders] the Wyly brothers, [the Bush campaign is] going to be surprised at how much effect they have” on the election.

McCain had no regrets about the speech. “I’d give that speech again tomorrow,” he said. The GOP will continue to lose presidential elections as long as it continues to cozy up to Robertson, Falwell and the crew at Bob Jones University, McCain said.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes came on the TV. The sound was turned off.

The McCains went up to the hotel’s eighth floor, where a small reception of supporters awaited, including Lee Iacocca, Connie Stevens, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and former Merrill Lynch CEO Herb Allison.

After half an hour of mingling, the McCains went to the center of the room. Cindy McCain took the floor and, thanking everyone, talked about how much the campaign had changed her life.

Not only was she much more comfortable speaking publicly, she said, but the time she spent with her husband on the Straight Talk Express bus made up for the weekends they spent apart in the previous 18 years of marriage. Well, she said, clarifying, they had been married for 20 years, but he was in Congress for the last 18.

“We had one good year,” McCain joked.

On previous campaigns, Cindy said, she had given her husband special gifts toward the end of each election. After his successful first House race, in which they schlepped door to door, she bronzed the hole-shot shoes he wore. After his first successful Senate race, she gave him a miniature replica of the train they had traveled the state on. Now she was giving him a miniversion of the Straight Talk Express.

If you look inside the bus, she said, “there are little miniature Trotskyites” — the name McCain has given the reporters who travel with him.

McCain hugged Cindy and thanked her for the gift. When she said it was going to be symbolic of the campaign, he said he thought it might be “an unguided missile, or a high wire.”

McCain thanked his supporters, saying that he hadn’t decided what he was going to do and whether he would continue his run for president. But no matter what, he said, he had achieved “what I wanted to, and that is to inspire a generation of young Americans to commit themselves to causes greater than their self-interest.” At UCLA the previous day, he noted, all the students “got quiet, they get quiet, when you start talking about it.”

“This crusade is not over — it’s just begun,” he promised, though it wasn’t clear what exactly that meant.

Soon the McCains returned to their suite along with about a dozen staffers and supporters. “Remember the words of Chairman Mao,” McCain said. “‘It’s always darkest before it’s totally black.’”

After a pause, campaign manager Rick Davis quipped, “We gotta get you some new material.”

“Oh, really?” cracked Cindy McCain, who had heard the joke even more times than the others in the room had heard it, which was roughly 3 trillion times.

He took a call from NBC’s Tim Russert. He took a call from Ron Fournier of the Associated Press. Media strategist Mike Murphy and Davis implored him to stay on message, but McCain couldnt resist telling Fournier, “I’ve got to go. That’s Ross Perot on the other line.” His advisors shook their heads. Davis said he would call Fournier back to make sure he knew it was a joke, and that there was no third-party plan.

In a side bedroom, the four young McCain kids were watching the movie “Galaxy Quest.” Murphy received a phone call with tracking poll information confirming that McCain finished third in California’s beauty-contest ballot of the five major presidential candidates. McCain said it was time to call Bush to congratulate him.

Bush hadn’t called him to congratulate him on his wins in Michigan or Arizona. Hughes had told Tucker Carlson of the Weekly Standard that the governor hadn’t placed the call because he had been on a plane, which wasn’t true. She later took that story back, and said McCain hadn’t called Bush to congratulate him on his wins in Iowa or Delaware, states McCain hadn’t competed in.

“Get John,” McCain said, referring to political director “Sunny” John Weaver, who detests Bush and lives — for the time being — in Texas. Everyone laughed, knowing how much Weaver hated the task.

“It’s really cruel and unusual punishment,” McCain said.

A minute later, Weaver handed McCain his cell phone.

“Hi, this is Sen. McCain, is the governor there?”

The room was quiet.

“How are you, sir?” McCain soon said. “I called to congratulate you on your success. They are very significant victories. And I wish the very best to your family.”

A few minutes later, McCain and his family proceeded to the Pacific Design Center Plaza in West Hollywood for his Super Tuesday party.

“We won a few and we lost a few today,” McCain said after repeating the line about Cindy’s success campaigning in Rhode Island and Vermont. “And over the next few days we will take some time to enjoy our victories and take stock of our losses.” Congratulating Bush, he said, “We may meet again in primaries a few days from now.”

In Arizona tomorrow, he and his family and staff “will take a little time to reflect on the direction of our campaign,” he said. “But I want to assure you all that our crusade continues tonight, tomorrow, the next day, the day after that and for as long as it takes to restore America’s confidence and pride in the practice and institutions of our great democracy.”

“We’ve changed the face of politics and put reform on the agenda,” McCain said. “We’re proud of what we’ve done.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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