“The place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi.”
It was simple, brutally effective and set the groundwork for what Sen. Barack Obama found out last week - Sen. John McCain’s 22-year military career, and particularly his 5 1/2 years as a North Vietnamese prisoner of war, is a potent political weapon the senator has not been shy about using throughout his career.
Mr. McCain deploys it tactically to answer charges, claim moral credibility and occasionally to launch an attack of his own, a trifecta he achieved when Mr. Obama accused him of not showing enough care for veterans’ educational needs.
“I take a back seat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did,” Mr. McCain shot back in a blistering statement that listed his Navy lineage back to his grandfather, who died a day after returning from World War II.
It’s a strategy Mr. McCain perfected during repeated races in Arizona, including his successful 1986 bid for retiring Sen. Barry Goldwater’s seat, in which then-Rep. McCain unloaded on his Democratic opponent, Richard Kimball, in the final debate of the campaign for not having served.
“He flunked ROTC,” Mr. McCain charged, according to the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff, which said Mr. McCain took two shots at Mr. Kimball’s lack of service, the second time drawing some groans from the audience.
Mr. McCain’s war record has always served him well, helping him become one of the more-prominent young members of Congress when he was first elected, and later giving him a national profile when the press was looking for commentators to discuss the 1991 Persian Gulf war, said Arizona State professor Bruce Merrill.
He said the national profile probably helped Mr. McCain survive his 1992 re-election, when he faced questions over his involvement with Charles Keating Jr., later convicted of fraud and racketeering.
Mr. Merrill said given the tough political environment for Republicans this year, Mr. McCain’s military image is one of his strongest advantages.
“That’s part of who he is now - a military guy, a maverick, a tough guy. And when things get tough that’s about the only thing he’s got going for him right now,” said the professor, who polled for Mr. McCain in his first congressional race in 1982.
Similar to Mr. Obama last week, opponents have occasionally tried to hit Mr. McCain on his support for veterans. His work to normalize relations with Vietnam was a frequent target for Arizona challengers, who said it angered veterans.
But those conversations invariably created chances for the well-decorated Navy pilot to discuss his service.
McCain associates said they don’t expect the senator to strike first in attacking Mr. Obama’s lack of service. The more likely scenario is Mr. Obama flubbing an answer on military matters and Mr. McCain seizing on it, said retired Navy Cmdr. Paul Galanti, a former POW himself, who was Mr. McCain’s 2000 campaign Virginia state chairman.
“McCain won’t make an issue of it, he won’t start the issue - what will happen is when Obama screws up in debates or however it happens, John will jump on him like a hawk,” he said.
A McCain campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said it was fair for Mr. McCain to talk about military service in response to Mr. Obama last week, particularly because the Democrat’s attack came on the floor of the Senate and was, as the campaign perceived it, personal.