Last week, with the Club for Growth conference and the "Values Voter" summit taking place in Washington, D.C., infighting among the leading Republican presidential contenders reached an all-new high.
Except where Sen. John McCain was concerned. After all, while ex-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, ex-Sen. Fred Thompson and ex-Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney have been busy sparring over everything from abortion to taxes, McCain has kept busy bashing Romney, almost exclusively -- leading observers to wonder just what he's up to.
In last Sunday's Fox News GOP debate, McCain lashed out at Romney, intimating flip-floppery, and saying that he'd been "spending the last year trying to fool people" about his record. A week before, he bashed Romney for his comment about speaking "for the Republican wing of the Republican party," stating that when Romney "ran for office in Massachusetts, being a Republican wasn't much of a priority for him." He also ripped him for his repudiation of the Reagan-Bush years, his donation to New Hampshire Democrat Dick Swett, and his voting for Democrat Paul Tsongas in 1992 -- and managed to bog Romney down in an ensuing catfight that lasted several days.
To some observers, the whole situation smacked of a continuation of the Romney-McCain feud that has been running for months now, borne out of a deep and abiding mutual dislike. There may also be a political rationale for McCain's focusing his attention on Romney. While Romney bests McCain by a large margin in Iowa, a Marist poll published earlier this month shows Romney with just a 10 point lead on McCain in New Hampshire, where he still claims a large and loyal following -- and a recent American Research Group poll shows him with an even smaller advantage. That suggests that the race in New Hampshire is far closer than Romney would like, and still one that McCain could win -- if he works hard at it.
To be sure, McCain desperately needs a New Hampshire win. As he mulls the possibility of publicly financing his campaign, and rumors fly that he might take out a seven-figure loan instead, it's clear his campaign remains in troubled waters. In all probability, the only way he makes it to South Carolina is if he comes out of New Hampshire with a solid result -- and knocking Romney back would help immeasurably to achieve it.
Still, though, with Giuliani remaining the overall frontrunner, the question remains, why is he attracting virtually none of McCain's attention, attack-wise? Sure, McCain recently took a poke at the ex-Mayor over his position vis-a-vis the line-item veto. He's also taken swipes at him on guns at the NRA Convention, and at the recent Michigan debate he quashed Giuliani's idea that it might be appropriate to set up a new government agency to deal with Internet sex predators.
But his most recent poke at the ex-Mayor, during a conference call yesterday with bloggers, over whether waterboarding equates to torture, looked more friendly than feisty, with McCain saying, "My friend Rudy should know what waterboarding is, and should know whether it is torture or not." Likewise, Team Giuliani's response underlined the chummy relationship between the Senator and the ex-Mayor, with attention being drawn back to the close friendship between the two. "John McCain is a true national hero whose service to our country is commendable and the Mayor considers him a good friend," began the statement by Giuliani's communications director, Katie Levinson.
Friendliness among competitors for the same prize is a rare thing in politics -- and McCain's willingness to play nice with Giuliani looks even more odd considering his frequent, harsh swats at Romney. The McCain-Giuliani chumminess, especially when combined with Giuliani's indications that he'd be backing McCain were he not running, and McCain's praising of Giuliani in debates, therefore raises another possibility. Could McCain be hitting out at Romney in an attempt (however unconscious) to bolster Giuliani's campaign and smash Romney's to smithereens?
Certainly, McCain will have considered the possibility of exiting the presidential race sooner rather than later. Should that occur, not least given the strong mutual dislike between himself and Romney, McCain will not want Romney to benefit -- and, with Thompson's campaign seeming to have picked up less steam than many had anticipated, Giuliani in many ways looks best-placed to keep Romney off of the 2008 ticket.
Of course, McCain and Giuliani are also reasonably close to each other not just personally but philosophically. Yes, Giuliani is pro-choice and McCain is pro-life; Giuliani looks more a tax-cutter and McCain more Mr. Anti-Pork; Giuliani's foreign policy team looks more neoconservative-dominated and McCain's more old-school realist. Nonetheless, generically, they both come across as socially moderate, fiscal and defense conservatives. That may just be the agenda that McCain wishes to see win, while also wishing to see his friend succeed, and his rival fail. Or, it may just be a theory that looks credible, given McCain's focus on doing whatever is necessary to win in New Hampshire -- including taking down Romney.
Whatever McCain's true intentions, they may matter little in the larger scheme of things. Ultimately, the more bogged down Romney becomes in responding to McCain's proverbial bottle rockets, the more free Giuliani is to campaign on his terms, as opposed to Romney's. Conversely, the more time Romney has to spend responding to McCain, the less time he has to sell himself to voters.
For Romney, that is the true danger of the strategy being employed by McCain. Will he recognize it, and, if so, will he do so in time? With just a few months to go before New Hampshire -- the first contest in which Romney will face serious opposition from Giuliani -- that's a question everyone should be asking.