- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

With a broadside last week against “greedy” corporate CEOs and his current campaign tour of places Republican candidates usually miss, Sen. John McCain is in the middle of a political rebranding effort to show the war hero can also master poverty and economic pain.

The presumed Republican presidential nominee is enjoying an extended honeymoon, thanks to Democrats’ bitter nomination battle, and he’s making the most of it, attempting to mold his professed conservative principles into the image of the compassionate domestic leader that voters have come to expect in a chief executive.

“There must be no forgotten places in America, whether they have been ignored for long years by the sins of indifference and injustice, or have been left behind as the world grew smaller and more economically interdependent,” Mr. McCain said Monday in kicking off his weeklong poverty tour in Selma, Ala., the site of a seminal civil rights march. “In America, we have always believed that if the day was a disappointment, we would win tomorrow.”

The tour also took him this week to Inez, Ky., where President Johnson announced his war on poverty in 1964 and today will take him to New Orleans, where he will tour hurricane-damaged neighborhoods.

It’s new rhetoric for Mr. McCain, who established a four-term Senate record and won the Republican primary on the strength of his national-security credentials. But with the general election now looming, polls show the economy and gas prices have shot past Iraq to top voters’ list of concerns.

Now Mr. McCain is trying to keep up — and that means using his maverick reputation to argue he’s also willing to buck his party’s image and campaign in traditional Democratic areas, among Democratic voters, and on issues usually scored as friendlier territory for Democrats.

“We have to fit those small-government conservative views into people’s concerns and fears about the economy and health care, and convince them that’s the better approach to helping them and helping the economy,” said Charlie Black, a top strategist for the campaign.

“We know that we’re in a change election as they call it; everybody wants change,” he said. “The biggest challenge, if I had to say what it is today, is to win this argument on the economy — who’s policies are best to either bring us out of recession or avoid recession.”

Mr. McCain earlier this month proposed a gas-tax holiday to run between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and also called for government aid to help out many homeowners saddled with bad mortgages and students who face difficulty paying back loans. He has said the government is full of “broken” programs, and he said it has a duty to help the less fortunate — but he is careful to say that role should be limited and targeted.

The Democratic Party, eager to deny Mr. McCain a chance to create his own brand, earlier this month tried to do it for him, releasing polling that suggests it should be easy for Democrats to tar Mr. McCain among independent swing voters.

The polling suggested that voters are open to the argument Mr. McCain “is ill attuned to the times,” he is too focused on Iraq, and he doesn’t understand “the real economic needs of average Americans,” the pollsters wrote in their memo.

“Right now, his brand name is a third Bush term, and a reformer of convenience — a guy who thinks the reforms he champions don’t apply to himself,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said.

Mr. McCain helped damage his own “brand identity” on economics, saying in December that the issue was not his strongest suit — “not something I’ve understood as well as I should.”

Branding experts say Mr. McCain’s domestic image needs the help.

“He is weak on economics. And he inherits the perception that Bush’s administration has hurt the economy. On one hand, McCain is now talking about cutting spending and taxes, while being the lead supporter of the super-expensive Iraq war,” said Chuck Pettis, president of BrandSolutions. “Bottom line, McCain is weak on the domestic front. His brand is tied up in ‘winning the war’ and being the ‘true American hero.’ ”

He said Mr. McCain is also vulnerable to Democrats’ comparisons to President Bush.

“From a branding standpoint, he has good material to work with in terms of brand identity,” Mr. Pettis said. “Problem is, most people don’t want more George Bush politics and thinking. Most people want out of Iraq. The GOP’s image is way down from where it was four to eight years ago.”

Mr. McCain came into the primaries with a complex image on domestic issues. He spent the years since his last presidential bid in 2000 establishing himself in opposition to most of his own party on Mr. Bush’s tax cuts, immigration and his own name-brand campaign-finance laws.

But over the course of the primaries he shifted, even impressing conservatives who had been wary of some of his stances. Now he must pivot back, without losing the conservatives who were already wary of him.

Pat Toomey, president of the free-market Club for Growth, said so far Mr. McCain has done well, despite a hiccup with his charge last week to newspaper executives that “greedy” chief executives are partly responsible for the economic downturn.

“So far, it sounds like it’s just a rhetorical device from Senator McCain,” Mr. Toomey said.

“If you asked a year ago, I’d say the brand was fairly suspect on economic policy. But Senator McCain over the last year has consistently supported pro-growth economic policies,” he said. “He may be recapturing a brand he once had.”

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