Others suggest that McKinnon is motivated by money, though he already lives comfortably just outside Austin. Bush has paid McKinnon's advertising firm $1.8 million since the campaign started, much of it for production costs, and McKinnon likely will take in an additional $1.6 million or more in commissions from Bush's fall ad spending.
McKinnon's closest friends are more forgiving.
"I'm not happy with what he's doing, but I know why he's doing it," said Begala, the former Clinton advisor, who met McKinnon when they were students at the University of Texas at Austin. "He fell in love. [But] I'm sure there's a part of Mark that wakes up in the middle of the night screaming when he rolls over and sees Pat Robertson in bed with him."
When the world last saw McKinnon, he was fed up with political theater. He announced in an essay for Texas Monthly magazine in 1996 that he was through as a campaign consultant.
"Maybe it was the candidate for statewide office who got so drunk he came on to a member of our film crew at a public restaurant while his wife and daughter sat horrified across the table. . . . Maybe it was the time I got so frustrated I screamed obscenities at a female statewide officeholder. . . . Maybe I got tired of candidates asking me what their firmly held convictions should be. . . . Maybe I simply lost my political idealism. . . . Maybe politics just got old. Maybe I just got tired," he wrote.
In many ways, McKinnon merely reflects some of the undercurrents sweeping his industry. American University's survey found that a majority of the professionals managing campaign operations admitted helping elect people they were later sorry to see in office.
And McKinnon wasn't alone in losing his idealism. About 52% of consultants said political beliefs were their primary reason for getting into the business, but only 42% said it was their main motivation today. Meanwhile, the number saying profits were their main motive has risen, from 11% to 24%.
After leaving politics, McKinnon worked at Austin-based Public Strategies on ad campaigns for phone companies and backers of a new stadium in Tampa Bay, Fla. When he found himself invited to a social dinner with Bush in 1997, he walked in ready for a showdown.
"I had been drinking the Democratic Kool-Aid for years," McKinnon said, repeating one of his favorite sound bites, "and I had my notions about him." But the two hit it off--each had two daughters, each was a competitive runner--and became friends.
Soon afterward came the offer to join Bush's 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign as media advisor. In mulling over what previously had been unimaginable, McKinnon said he came to decide that an individual's judgment is more critical than which party he calls home.
McKinnon said he was drawn to Bush's willingness "to stand up, to stand in the wind" on issues such as immigration. As governor, Bush condemned GOP orthodoxy during the anti-immigrant era of then-California Gov. Pete Wilson, rejecting calls to reduce services to immigrants.
He declines to list the areas where they part ways but says that, when they differ concerning policy, "I salute and say, 'Yes, sir.' "
McKinnon has gathered a media team including his former partner in Democratic politics, numbers wizard Matthew Dowd, longtime GOP consultant (and former writer for the TV show "Northern Exposure") Stuart Stevens and a crew of Manhattan commercial ad designers that calls itself the "Park Avenue Posse."
Together, they staff Maverick Media, the company McKinnon formed to produce the campaign ads. Maverick's office is in a converted bomb shelter outside downtown Austin known as the Bunker. Black-and-white photos of its only client hang on walls painted blood red. Cans of "Bush's Best" brand pinto beans sit atop wood crates and old ammunition boxes.
Despite the imagery of war in their office, McKinnon said he'd like to keep the tone of the fall campaign ads positive. But he is under no illusions.
"People react to fear more easily than they do hope," he said.
Given his resume, some GOP insiders have carefully watched McKinnon's ads, wondering if he had the stomach to attack his former party. So far, McKinnon's spots have been more thematic than argumentative. They feature scenes from daily life--kids in school or an elderly man playing baseball--splicing in shots of Bush speaking and images of a racially diverse group of people standing against a white background.
He has rejected some of the sharper-edged negative ads written by his Madison Avenue team, including one in which the camera shows a series of bare flagpoles in an effort to suggest the Clinton White House has stripped the nation of its pride.
McKinnon insists, however, that he will "counterpunch" if the Democrats air ads blasting Bush.