Navy brat, fighter jock, POW, survivor, hero, husband, father of seven, lawmaker, presidential nominee. Insurgent, of course. Maverick always.
Sen. John McCain has been there, done that for seven decades, while cameras rolled, pundits sputtered and the tides of the Republican Party rose and fell, for better or worse.
Is “president” next on the roster? The prospect requires a steady but exquisitely sensitive hand on the throttle. Mr. McCain has just nine weeks to unite a fractious GOP, assuage conservatives, neutralize a hostile press, assume a presidential posture, snap up swing voters and reassure Americans in general that they will live happily ever after, or at least until 2012.
Mr. McCain remains full of surprises. “McCain/Palin ‘08” is evidence that. Still, things look promising.
“Many folks counted him down and out a year ago. The other candidates stopped paying attention to him, they did not make a play to gather his support for themselves. Quietly, under the radar, he rebuilt himself. The others were caught sleeping. One has to give John McCain credit for doing that,” said Bob Barr, a former Republican congressman who is himself running for president on the Libertarian ticket.
Conservatives who felt that their bedrock values were threatened by a McCain presidency have let down their guard.
“Since he locked up the nomination, McCain has made personal advances with conservatives. Most importantly, one of the fears they had about him was that he was on a crusade to not just get the nomination but to remake the Republican Party in a way which would leave conservatives outside looking in,” said David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
“McCain once likened it to a hostile takeover, as I recall. But it appears the McCain camp has decided essentially to let the GOP remake itself, which is comforting. It is a signal that McCain is ready to be president, not just retool the party,” Mr. Keene continued.
Mr. McCain’s take on certain issues vexed conservatives over the years. He voted against President Bush’s tax cuts, rallied for amnesty for illegal immigrants and personally engineered campaign finance laws. And yet Mr. McCain, maverick that he is, has curried favor with conservatives for years.
“I am a proud Reagan conservative. I love the Republican Party. It is my home,” he said.
Mr. McCain made the statement in early 2000. He called himself a “Goldwater Republican” in 2005. The edge of conservative annoyance has softened since then.
“I wouldn’t feel all warm and fuzzy about a McCain presidency. But in a strange way, it could be good for the conservative movement. We’ve gotten a little lax on pressing our candidates on the principles we support. If McCain becomes president, conservatives will support him when he’s right and take him to task when he’s wrong. That will make for strong conservatives in the future,” Mr. Keene said.
The overall public has been sizing up Mr. McCain, wondering if their concerns about his age outweigh their trust in his experience. But some say Mr. McCain has been hard-wired to assume the presidency, and that his victory is a matter of old-fashioned destiny.
“Throughout his personal history, John McCain has been a survivor,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, citing the visceral experiences that have distinguished the White House hopeful from his rival, Sen. Barack Obama, who is a quarter of a century younger.
As a naval aviator almost 41 years ago, Mr. McCain was shot down over North Vietnam, broke three major limbs, was bayoneted, imprisoned, tortured. The dark hair on the young man’s head turned completely white. He spent years recovering. All of it translates to a more contemporary battlefield, and ultimately could resonate in the polling booth, Mr. Bonjean said.
“McCain keeps moving forward through adversity. He never gives up. He never gave up on the campaign trail either. He let other primary candidates take the limelight and duke it out. McCain showed what kind of candidate he was and that resiliency paid off in the primary. Now we’re seeing the same kind of strategy,” Mr. Bonjean observed.
“People overestimated Obama, and they underestimated McCain. But Americans aren’t questioning whether McCain is ready to be president. He has focused his core messages and galvanized supporters. Morale is up. We feel better. We actually believe that McCain can win. He has framed Obama in a celebrity box that he just can’t get out of,” he added.
Public perceptions about Mr. McCain’s prowess as a leader are clear on some issues.
Compared to Mr. Obama, he is better suited to handle terrorism, the economy, illegal immigration, the war in Iraq and gas prices, according to a CNN survey of more than 1,032 adults released Wednesday. In some cases, there is a pronounced gap. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents, for example, trusted Mr. McCain when it came to terrorism, compared with 37 percent who looked toward Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama, however, triumphed in the tax arena (48 percent to 46 percent, respectively) and in health care (57 percent to 36 percent).
Daily polls, press coverage, incessant campaigning and select light-hearted moments on late night TV might suggest that the public knows everything there is to know about Mr. McCain. But he is no media darling. Analyses from the Pew Research Center, the Media Research Center and other groups have revealed that coverage of Mr. Obama has been both more frequent this year, and more positive in tone.
But America may be clueless about Mr. McCain, says one who knows him well.
“He’s an enormously accomplished man, and for some reason the real extent of that doesn’t come out, in part because of John McCain’s own reticence. He’s a gentleman. He doesn’t like to boast about himself personally,” said Emmett Tyrrell, founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator.
The pair have been friends for 20 years, and Mr. Tyrrell does not mince words when he describe’s Mr. McCain’s wartime injuries, physical suffering and “gruesome physical therapy,” along with his reinvention as a decorated Navy officer stateside.
“John got himself flying again, he got a whole squadron up and flying again. He changed the morale, he had the skills to manage a billion-dollar undertaking even then. He could have been an admiral like his father but chose government service instead,” Mr. Tyrrell said.
“And you know what? He’s a better conservative than he gives himself credit for. He’s always been for economy of government and is opposed to lavish spending. He’s vigilant on foreign policy and he’s pro-life. He doesn’t like the lofty ways of United States senators either. I once saw him deny his colleagues their reserved parking spots out at National Airport, and they wailed,” Mr. Tyrrell recalled.
“I am not sure Republicans entirely understand McCain. They should realize this is a man who lived a life of service to the country in war, and in peace. John is one of those old-fashioned guys who believes in that public service,” he said.
Republicans may not understand Mr. McCain, but they are savvy enough to tap into his sterling record as a public relations tool. “Country First” is the theme of the Republican National Convention, the “candid and personal tone” of each day’s events homing in on Mr. McCain’s most tender callings.
The convention will be “a testament to Senator McCain’s unparalleled record of service and sacrifice for America and his readiness to lead as commander in chief and move America forward,” said convention president Maria Cino.
Mr. McCain’s creative handlers have added a distinct new dovish dimension to his flinty hawk image, however. Some of it looks torn from the pages of a Democratic playbook, in fact.
During Thursday’s convention finale, the night’s events “will reflect his vision of an America in pursuit of peace and seen as a beacon of good will and hope throughout the world,” said production notes from Ms. Cino’s office.
Mr. McCain himself is getting a little global as well.
“Our next president will have a mandate to build an enduring global peace on the foundations of freedom, security, opportunity, prosperity and hope,” he said recently.
“Beacon of peace? Republicans and McCain are just groping around to find a vision and an agenda, and all they come up with is slogans. It’s going to take more than that,” countered Bob Barr. “They could add a footnote to that comment. A beacon of peace - with the point of a gun.”
Such marketing cross-fertilization could be working, though.
The public applause meter has tipped slightly in favor of Mr. McCain in recent days. His overall favorability ratings top Mr. Obama’s numbers in several recent public opinion polls by a few percentage points — with analysts citing disgruntled “conservative Democrats” and a serious fissure in the party fomented by diehard supporters of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Her husband, in his inimitable fashion, alluded to that unsure electorate only hours before appearing at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.
“You’re a voter, and you have Candidate X and Candidate Y. Candidate X agrees with you on everything. But you don’t think that person can deliver on anything. Candidate Y disagrees with you on half the issues, but you believe that, on the other half, the candidate will be able to deliver. For whom will you vote?” asked former President Bill Clinton during a leadership forum in Denver.
Campaign strategies from the Obama camp could also be off mark.
“During the primaries, John McCain won as the candidate who could most distance himself from President Bush in terms of spending and personality. This is a major problem for Obama. He’s always tried to tie McCain with Bush. But that dog don’t hunt,” said Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.
The cumulative impact on Mr. Obama has been quantified.
“Support for Obama among all Democratic registered voters fell from 81 percent Aug. 4-10 to 78 percent Aug. 18-24,” a recent Gallup Daily Tracking Poll said.
A Rasmussen Reports daily Presidential Tracking Poll found that Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain each attracted 44 percent of the vote; when “leaners” were included, though, Mr. McCain picked up another point — statistically insignificant, but noteworthy in timing. The Democratic convention was already under way, with the eyes of the nation presumably fixed on Mr. Obama.
The race itself has been fraught with razor-thin margins and subtle complexities from the start, though.
“McCain didn’t win the Republican nomination. Everyone else lost,” noted pollster Scott Rasmussen.
A canny Mr. McCain focused on common-ground issues like national security and made a series of strategic decisions, “stepping into the void,” Mr. Rasmussen said, as his competition fell away.
“The nation was enthralled with the Clinton-Obama competition. That helped to unify the Republican base, which McCain himself couldn’t do. Even today, we see that McCain does better among Republicans than Obama does with Democrats, who have not resolved their internal divides,” he continued.
“McCain has been good for the GOP this cycle, even if the insiders don’t want to acknowledge it,” Mr. Rasmussen concluded.
Indeed, there has been much caterwaul about the tarnishing of “the Republican brand” in the last two years, thanks to a series of titillating misfortunes among GOP lawmakers and American weariness with the casualties and expense of the Iraq war.
Yet Mr. McCain’s choice of Gov. Palin as his running mate seems to have been just the polish that could add a real spit-shine to the GOP image — and lend some audacity as well.
“This was a very wise move by Sen. McCain. He has done what Sen. Obama refused to do — pick a qualified woman to be his running mate. Instead, Obama picked a Washington insider who has been part of the old guard of radical liberals who are still trying to raise taxes, protect the abortion industry and pack our federal courts with activist judges,” said Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition.
“Six months ago, Republicans had several agendas, but not a cohesive one. They really were wandering in the wilderness, looking for direction. The energy issue galvanized them and helped return the morale to the party. And I’d say that Sen. McCain was instrumental in that,” said GOP strategist Mr. Bonjean.