- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

“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.

“Where it has become part of the discussion in the campaign thus far has been in response to Barack Obama’s questioning his commitment to veterans,” the official said. “That is an example of a place where it is appropriate and expected that any candidate will draw on his own experience.”

The official said Mr. McCain’s military record will be used in the same way Mr. Obama uses his experience as a community organizer in Chicago to claim qualifications to evaluate the economy and a host of other issues.

There might also be an internal discussion about just how far the campaign should go. Mr. McCain’s initial statement released by his campaign pointedly noted Mr. Obama’s lack of service, but the candidate’s own remarks in later appearances were less direct.

Most Democrats seem unsure how to respond to Mr. McCain’s military record at this point. Several declined to comment or didn’t return calls for this story. Mr. Obama’s campaign also declined, though the candidate himself told reporters traveling with him over the weekend he will not be cowed into silence.

“I respect John McCain’s service to our country, I think he’s a genuine war hero. But I think the notion that somehow I can’t speak out on behalf of veterans because of the fact that I didn’t serve, makes no sense whatsoever,” he said.

He explained his own situation, saying the Vietnam War was over by the time he was of draft age. He also pointed to his grandfather’s military service as evidence he can speak for veterans.

Still, some Democrats have suggested Mr. McCain’s extensive military experience might not be much of a positive factor this year.

Earlier this month Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, told reporters from his home state that Mr. McCain’s long family history with the military means “his whole world view, his life view has been shaped from a military viewpoint, and he has a hard time thinking beyond that, and I think he’s trapped in that.”

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History lists 31 presidents who have some military service, though not all of them claim active war service and some, including Thomas Jefferson, served in a state militia.

Polls have suggested voters see military service as a plus, though not essential.

But for some voters it could be determinative. Mr. Galanti said he expects Mr. McCain will do particularly well among active-duty military and their families, winning upward of 80 percent of their votes in November.

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