In conversations I've had this week with Republican activists in Iowa and New Hampshire, the comments about John McCain's campaign have been of a piece. It's not just that they don't think he has a chance. They've moved past that. They're now trading theories about the real reason he's staying in the race. The prevailing view is that McCain is hanging on until January so he can claim federal matching funds to pay off his debts.
McCain and his campaign insist they're earnestly trying to win, but that's not going to stop the chatter. He doesn't have enough money for ads. His campaign is so broke, in fact, the candidate is flying coach and carrying his own bags.
If McCain wants to prove he's still committed to winning, it's time for him to throw his Hail Mary pass. That can only mean one thing: doubling down on his support for continuing the war in Iraq and taking on his opponents for being half-hearted about it. His big chance to do this will come in Sunday's early morning Republican debate, the first since the McCain campaign went into its graveyard spiral.
McCain's support of the war is the only thing he has going for him. At this point, he isn't going to win the nomination with a better health-care plan or by changing his position on immigration. But he might have an outside shot at turning things around by making the case that his rivals shy away from—for more anguish and heartache in Iraq. McCain has been the president's most loyal supporter on the troop surge for months for one simple reason: because he really believes in it. Among Republican voters, his fierce resolve on the issue is his strongest selling point. By making constancy and sacrifice his big themes, McCain can also take some of the focus off of his political problem and reframe his campaign around the larger mission he thinks we have to get right.
Given how much more knowledgeable he is than his opponents on security and defense issues, McCain stands to win any argument he provokes on the subject. The issue also provides a nice contrast with his opponents. Though McCain's rivals support the surge and make fun of Democrats for backing a strategy of defeat in Iraq, no one talks about keeping up the fight the way McCain has. There's even some evidence that other Republicans are inching away from their support of the surge. If McCain is serious about staying in the campaign, he'll make them pay for any fudging or waffling on the issue. McCain can make the case that Romney's and Giuliani's executive experience means nothing if they're going to shirk the big fight of the day.
This is a risky approach, of course, but McCain doesn't have a lot of time or other alternatives. He's got to show Republicans he's still alive. And maybe he has to show himself, too. McCain has always said he would rather win the war than the election. At this point, it may be impossible to win either. But honorable defeat remains a possibility.