TO paraphrase actress Renee Zellweger in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire, GOP presidential candidate John McCain had me at "agents of intolerance" in 2000. It took guts for a conservative Republican to denounce some evangelical leaders that way. But back then, the Arizona senator seemed to revel in his public persona as a swashbuckling maverick who took on the establishment without fear.
It was one of his more endearing qualities as a candidate who provided a refreshing alternative to the uninspiring Al Gore and equally insipid George W. Bush. Back then, the veteran legislator and one-time prisoner of war aimed to epitomize his Straight Talk Express bus tour across America with uncommon forthrightness on the issues and himself.
Let the chips fall where they may but in his first run for the White House, Mr. McCain was determined to prove he was not your typical conservative Republican from central casting. He would take on the likes of Jerry Falwell, encourage environmentalists with his support for a moratorium on offshore drilling, and make campaign finance reform his signature crusade with Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.
Back then, it was the McCain candidacy that stoked interest across a broad political spectrum and it was his candor and character on the campaign trail that attracted a fervent following - especially after the Clinton years. Eventually, however, Mr. McCain's presidential ambitions would be dashed by a more powerfully-connected and funded campaign, not to mention a classless smear tactic that suggested he was a bit unstable with serious anger issues as a result of his POW days.
Yet, despite the clear disdain the McCain camp held for the smarmy Bush-Cheney operation, Senator McCain, dutiful party man, made nice with the presidential nominee at joint public appearances that surely made his supporters wince. But the truth is, their one-time defiantly independent leader was morphing into a loyal company man before their very eyes.
Gone was the outspoken contrarian who would break ranks with party leadership when personal judgment compelled him. Eight years later, in his second run for the White House, the regrettable McCain transformation into status quo sap is quite complete.
It's hard to image that only a few years ago, the same Mr. McCain we see now as a stalwart defender of the road to ruin, was one of just two Republican senators with the chutzpah to vote against the Bush Administration tax cuts. Now, in the mother of all flip flops, the presumed GOP presidential nominee has not only embraced the tax cuts he once opposed as disproportionately benefiting the very wealthiest Americans, but features them as a key part of his economic agenda.
Lifting the federal ban on offshore oil and gas development, another prospect Mr. McCain once opposed, has not only been heralded by Candidate McCain but also become a central element to his energy plan.
Then there's Mr. McCain flopping like a fish with a statement that he would vote against an immigration reform bill that he actually co-sponsored three years ago with Democrat Ted Kennedy.
The measure includes provisions for a path to citizenship for illegal workers, which conservatives hate. And conservatives are the reason Mr. McCain is the candidate of change this election. If he can win the trust of his party's core constituency - which is a big if - by changing into a Republican on the far right of socially moderate, maybe he can win the White House.
It worked for George W. and Ronald Reagan before him. That's why the pro-choice senator, who would like to think he has morphed into the faithful heir of the "Gipper," hints at the pro-life changes he'd promote, if elected, by appointing more conservative-leaning justices to the Supreme Court.
It's why Mr. McCain has changed from lambasting intolerant fundamentalist Christians to finding new reverence for them and actively courting their support. It's why he has turned into such a dependable backer of the Bush Administration on war and become a hard-line advocate for the President's costly nation-building experiment.
But frankly, it's not the same John McCain who had me at his gutsy best, railing against narrow-minded televangelists and policies he believed irresponsible, no matter who proposed them. He's not the same firebrand of the 2000 campaign who was unafraid to say you're not right and this is why.
He's not the same candidate who had a fire in his belly to bring about real change as president. And it's too bad. When polls indicate more than 80 percent of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, the last thing we need is more of the same with Mr. McCain.
Whatever happened to the seeming nonconformist who could fearlessly stray from the planks of party politics? He changed.