Sen. John McCain is playing both sides against the middle as he supports sending more than 21,500 additional troops to Iraq while trying to distance himself from President Bush by labeling the war a “train wreck.”
But election analysts and pollsters say the new tack is costing him independent voters, once his strong suit.
As the Arizona Republican, long popular among the liberal media, seeks to secure religious and social conservatives by espousing a hard line against homosexual “marriage” and abortion, independents are abandoning him in droves, a trend election analysts say could be fatal to his 2008 presidential hopes.
“It’s almost bipolar,” said pollster John Zogby, who has done work for Mr. McCain in the past.
“He walks a very thin line here. What made John McCain so popular was the maverick, independent, anti-party establishment, war-hero status. He was popular among independents, Democrats, and not unpopular at all among Republicans. But in the process of redefining himself from the hawkish, pro-surge, hug-the-president McCain, the redefinition has un-defined him,” Mr. Zogby said.
Courting both sides while seeking the middle can be dangerous, Mr. Zogby said.
“You risk alienating both sides, and a strong case can be made for winning from the center this year. McCain, though, is not just making small moves. His is much more like a huge pendulum swing, and thus far, it has not been helping him in the polls,” he said.
Mr. McCain began this month moving hard to the right, declaring his opposition to same-sex “marriage” and saying that he favored the overturn of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that made abortion a constitutional right. Asked in Seattle on Friday whether he was simply seeking to curry favor with conservatives, Mr. McCain said frankly: “I’ll probably get into trouble, but what’s wrong with sucking up to everybody?”
Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, said that “McCain is tanking fast with independents.”
“He had 49 percent of the independent voters in New Hampshire a year ago, but that has dropped … to 29 percent now,” said Mr. Bennett, who heads New Hampshire’s leading polling company.
Mr. Bennett said Mr. McCain is employing a “calculated” move not uncommon in Republican campaigns — lock down the conservative base, even at the expense of some independents, and then move back toward the middle in November, hoping to draw back some lost supporters.
“He’s still able to get those independents back. The real trick is, how far to the right can he go without losing those independents forever? And that’s an unknown, but he’s shown in the past he knows where the line is and that he can navigate that successfully,” he said.
Mr. McCain also stands out among Republican candidates in his continuing support for the Iraq war and as the leading Senate advocate for Mr. Bush’s “surge” plan.
Thus, Democratic National Committee spokesman Luis Miranda said, Mr. McCain may have difficulty distancing himself from Mr. Bush on the war, which many Americans have come to see as a losing effort.
“He is trying to have it both ways by criticizing a war he always supported, while also trying to stick close to the president,” the spokesman said.
But Charlie Black, a prominent adviser to Mr. Bush, said Mr. McCain can benefit by sticking to his core beliefs, which voters like.
“John McCain is taking a position that he thinks is right, and probably there’s not much political strategy behind it. That said, it might help him in primaries, but it’s a potential problem in the general election, really depending on what happens in Iraq in the next year and a half,” he said.
Mr. McCain has been unequivocal in his support for the surge plan, telling voters in Iowa last week that the president’s proposed solution is the only way the U.S. can salvage a win in Iraq.
“I’ve said all along I cannot be concerned and will not be concerned about whether it helps me or hurts me with anyone. It’s an issue that transcends any political ambition I might have,” he said in Des Moines.
A Gallup Poll released yesterday shows that his convictions may pay off. The president’s approval rating among Republicans is 76 percent, despite the somewhat unpopular surge plan. Thus, taking a position against the president puts Republicans at odds with the base.
But he is also clearly concerned with his plummeting support among independents, and in recent days has delivered some stern criticism to the president and his administration.
Mr. McCain on Wednesday said in a joint appearance with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in Los Angeles that his objections started three years ago “when I saw that this train wreck was taking place, and that we needed more troops, and we needed a different strategy.” During a South Carolina visit last week, he harshly criticized former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld as “one of the worst secretaries of defense in history.”
“We are paying a very heavy price for the mismanagement — that’s the kindest word I can give you of Donald Rumsfeld — of this war,” Mr. McCain told a crowd of 800-plus supporters at a retirement community near Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Although the senator risks losing hawkish conservatives, his criticism of Mr. Bush may make him more palatable to independents. Although he drew some Democratic support in his 2000 presidential bid, he does not risk losing them this time, Mr. Zogby said.
“In this atmosphere, if you’re pro-surge, there’s virtually no Democrats to get anyway,” he said.