Their national campaign together ended badly for both, topped by a flurry of leaks dumping on the former Alaska governor and, since then, nasty accusations between the senator's camp and hers over the conduct of it. Whatever happens now, the reappearance of McCain and Palin on the same stage illustrates how much things have changed since 2008. For starters, the understudy is now the star. A majority of Americans may think Palin is not qualified to be president, but the GOP faithful love her, as does cable television. Cable news was fixed on Palin as she delivered her introduction of McCain at a rally in Tucson on Friday afternoon. Minutes after McCain took the microphone, they cut away from the rally for other news.
More important are the forces unleashed since President Obama took office. The Republican Party has begun a comeback after two consecutive defeats, fueled to a great extent by a grass-roots tea party movement. These tea partiers appear determined to deal the president and his Democratic Party a crippling defeat in November. But the movement also threatens to devour some prominent members of the GOP establishment, McCain included.
The Arizona senator has been challenged from the right in the Republican primary by former representative J.D. Hayworth, who is hoping to return to Washington by capitalizing on McCain's long-standing difficulties with the GOP base.
McCain has company in the constellation of threatened GOP elected officials. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist, once one of the most popular politicians in his state, has seen his hopes of moving from the governor's mansion to the Senate crumble in the face of a challenge from a young, charismatic conservative named Marco Rubio. Once the clear leader, Crist now trails in the polls.
In Utah, Sen. Robert F. Bennett, a solid conservative who has worked across party lines in his chamber, faces multiple Republican challengers in his reelection bid. Party caucuses last week suggested clear anti-Bennett sentiment, and he is running scared.
McCain, Crist and Bennett are in trouble because in one way or another they have riled the most conservative wing of their party -- either by supporting the bailout of the financial industry, by favoring comprehensive immigration reform, as McCain did, or, in Crist's case, by speaking kindly of Obama's stimulus plan -- and appearing with the new president -- just as it was becoming GOP doctrine to oppose Obama by all means possible.