He'll be back

John McCain keeps his exit strategy vague. But George Bush's problems with his vanquished rival aren't over.

Published March 10, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When Sen. John McCain announced he was "suspending" his campaign Thursday, he all but ended his presidential hopes but also made it clear he will not go gentle into that good night. Though he congratulated Texas Gov. George W. Bush, "wish[ing] his family well" and saying "He deserves the best wishes of every American," notably absent from McCain's remarks was an endorsement of his rival.

And that won't be coming any time soon.

"I'm suspending my campaign so that Cindy and I can take some time to reflect on our recent experiences, and determine how we can best continue to serve the country, and help bring about the changes to the practices and institutions of our great democracy that are the purpose of our campaign," said a somber McCain against a gorgeous backdrop of a valley and mountain vista. "I am no longer an active candidate for my party's nomination."

Just the night before, at a cookout at McCain's nearby mountain home, there was still plenty of talk among the campaign staff about what would come next. One option, of course, was to quickly bow out and endorse Bush. But McCain and his aides, still angry about the ugly race Bush has run, are convinced voters will agree, and that Vice President Al Gore will demolish him in the general election.

Instead they decided on another option. Suspending his campaign rather than ending it will allow McCain to not only garner federal matching campaign funds to retire any debt, but also to retain control of his delegates -- thus ensuring a presence at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia this summer, and an ability to force a vote on platform issues. He could opt out without losing his voice.

Additionally, McCain will hold on to his campaign's grass-roots tools -- a considerable fund-raising network, and an e-mail list of 200,000 supporters -- to continue to advance the cause of governmental reform, be it by railing against pork-barrel spending, or the unlimited unregulated campaign cash known as "soft money."

The plan took form after a restless, sleepless Tuesday night. McCain and his senior advisors -- campaign manager Rick Davis, political director "Sunny" John Weaver, Senate chief of staff Mark Salter, media strategist Mike Murphy, ad man Greg Stevens and pollster Bill McInturff, among others -- spent the next day at McCain's Arizona compound sitting and talking about what to do next.

They joked about names for a possible third party, considering "M&M" (for McCain majority) or the ghetto-fab "Peeps," for people.

McCain ultimately decided against a third-party run -- at least for now -- because he doesn't want to seem like a sore loser. He always said he would support the Republican nominee. Now that Bush has won that position, McCain will almost assuredly support him.

But that endorsement will take a while. McCain and his senior staffers resent the campaign Bush waged -- the attacks by Bush surrogates on his personal life and his wife Cindy's past addiction to pain killers, and the racist allusions to his adopted 8-year-old daughter Bridget, who is from Bangladesh.

They think Bush conducted himself dishonorably time and again, refusing to call off attacks; allowing (at the very least) close allies to wage misleading ad attacks slamming him as an anti-environmentalist and painting him as being indifferent to breast cancer; and making callous remarks after learning McCain's sister is herself a breast cancer survivor. McCain aides feel strongly that history will judge Bush's campaign as one of the nastiest and ugliest ever waged.

After seeing his campaign hobbled by a number of egregious campaign-finance abuses -- most glaringly, a last-minute sham TV ad arranged and paid for by a number of Bush allies -- McCain remains committed to trying to clean up the political system. And if he so chooses, he can use the delegates of the seven states he's won to push for a GOP platform vote on whatever issue he sees fit.

"I love my party," McCain said in front of the cameras Thursday. "It is my home ... But I'm also dedicated to the necessary cause of reform. And I will never walk away from a fight for what I know is right and just for our country. As I said throughout the campaign, what is good for my country is good for my party. Should our party ever abandon this principle, the American people will rightly abandon us, and we will surely slip into the mists of history, deserving the allegiance of none."

McCain also talked about "making our party as big as the country we serve." McCain and his senior staff were disgusted by what they saw as naked race-, Jew- and gay-baiting by Bush and his allies. So McCain talked about the need to make the party more inclusive.

"We will keep trying to force open doors where there are walls to your full participation in the great enterprises of our democracy," McCain said, "be they walls of cynicism or intolerance, or walls raised by self-interested elites who would exclude your voice from the highest councils of our government."

The decision to suspend his campaign came after McCain suffered humbling losses on Super Tuesday -- and he blamed many of those on a widely aired TV ad, purchased by a completely invented organization called "Republicans for Clean Air" founded by two of Bush's biggest Texas supporters, Sam and Charles Wyly. But other observers pinned the losses on McCain's decrying of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as "agents of intolerance" in a speech last week, and his later flip reference to them as "evil."

For whatever reasons, McCain's poll numbers stalled for four days straight before the primaries, halting his momentum at a crucial time. After Tuesday, McCain had 231 delegates to Bush's 631 -- more than half the way to the 1,034 needed to secure the GOP nomination. The next round of primaries, on Tuesday, will include more Southern conservative states, as well as Texas and Florida, where Bush and his brother Jeb, respectively, serve as governors. That ensures that McCain's challenge won't get any easier.

John McCain will not disappear. Instead, he wants to use the force of his campaign, his message and his personality to continue to fight against those forces in the GOP that are, in his opinion, more than a tad responsible for his loss.

The idea that Gore -- he of the Buddhist Temple fund-raiser, "no controlling legal authority" and other Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandals -- can now credibly lay claim to being the campaign-finance reformer in the race makes them shake their heads and laugh.

Bush is certainly grappling for the high ground on the issue after the Wyly ad buy, which Larry Makinson, executive director of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, called "the biggest infusion of anonymous money in American politics since that bag stuffed with $2 million was found during Watergate."

Wednesday night, as McCain grilled up chicken and steak for about two dozen friends and staffers, he smiled wryly at thoughts of Gore rhetorically cozying up to him and campaign-finance reform. He shook his head when he heard that the Bush campaign was already stealing some of his photo-op techniques, as well as some of the reform language from his stump speech. Someone compared Bush's chances in the November election to a single-A minor league baseball batter stepping up to the plate against Roger Clemens.

Though he disdains Gore, McCain admires his considerable political skills. Tuesday night, McCain noted Gore's offer to Bush that they both refuse soft money, and predicted his rival wouldn't realize the political necessity of accepting Gore's offer. Sure enough, Bush appeared before the TV cameras Wednesday morning to reject it.

Considering how grueling the last few weeks have been for McCain, he was, on Wednesday night, serene. A lot of items weighed on his aides' minds. Did he lose because of the flip remark about Robertson and Falwell being "evil"? Could he have done anything differently?

At the end of his internal and external deliberations, he concluded he had done it his way -- and though he has a few regrets, they are too few to mention. When he and Bush went one-on-one on ideas and candidacies in New Hampshire, McCain hammered him. So Bush went ugly. McCain was proud he didn't do the same.

Still, around him, it kept getting uglier. There was the Maria Shriver incident, for instance. On Tuesday, as the results became apparent, NBC's Shriver parachuted into his hotel at the Beverly Hilton and demanded an interview. McCain, already turning down interviews with bigger names like Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, not to mention members of his traveling press corps who have followed him for months, demurred. Shriver, not taking no for an answer, stood in a stairway hoping to ambush Super Tuesday's big loser.

According to several witnesses, Shriver got to McCain after his advance man, Lanny Wiles, blocked her path. "She did a Lawrence Taylor pick-and-roll around Lanny," said one Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist.

In the process, Shriver's soundman and cameraman accidentally banged their equipment into Bridget McCain, the senator's adopted 8-year-old daughter. Cindy McCain yelled at Shriver. McCain -- caught on camera -- snapped at her to get out of his way. Shriver got great footage -- the irritable, mercurial, bitter McCain getting angry for no discernible reason.

A McCain staffer managed to keep the footage from being broadcast on "Today" after complaining to NBC honchos of Shriver's behavior. The footage was then dumped at the doorstep of "Entertainment Tonight," which not surprisingly ran it with no compunction -- or context -- whatsoever. "Crazy Angry Bitter John McCain" stories buzzed on "Extra!" and other schlock without mention that he was reacting to Shriver and crew's assault on his daughter.

Such were small matters, however. McCain is itching to get back to the Senate where he will no doubt enjoy a bully pulpit like never before. Unfortunately for him, the Senate is out of session next week, so his staff is begging him to take a vacation.

When he gets back, though, McCain will need to walk a fine line between endorsing Bush and fighting for the causes he believes in. Although McCain would publicly dispute this, his future as a national leader -- his message of inclusion and reform, specifically -- is predicated on Bush's failure.

But most of those worries seem to have been put on hold for a while. The night before he dropped out of the race, John McCain ate steak and chicken and homemade cherry ice cream. He sipped an ice-chilled vodka, wore an Arizona Wildcats hat, Nike running shoes, a down vest and a plaid shirt that seemed to date back to before Arizona became a state. He listened to the '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, slicing off pieces of chicken and beef for everyone to sample.

After dinner, he and his friends reclined in their house, listening and laughing to Mike Murphy's stories about the loud snoring of Rick Davis and local campaigns he had worked on in the past. Then McCain took his friends on a walk by the creek, and talked about how he had come to appreciate flowers in his gray years. Then, yawning, he and Cindy went to bed.

By Jake Tapper

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

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George W. Bush John Mccain R-ariz.