WASHINGTON — John McCain has a reputation as a straight-talking maverick who appeals to the independent voters who can tip the balance in this fall's presidential election.
Democrats don't want to run against that John McCain. They hope to introduce a different McCain: a war-hungry flip-flopper who offers nothing more than a third term for George W. Bush.
"We've got to define him . . . undermine his image of being a maverick," said John Lapp, a Democratic strategist who's unaffiliated with any presidential campaign. "Before he gets the Republican Death Star behind him, before he gets moneyed up, we've got to kill this guy in the crib."
More accurately, Democrats want to "redefine" McCain. After four terms in the U.S. Senate, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has forged a well-known reputation as a conservative with occasional progressive views on campaign finance, climate change, immigration and embryonic stem-cell research.
Nevertheless, Democrats think McCain has plenty of vulnerabilities as they gear up to run against him in the general election.
"The first thing is obvious," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist who also isn't working on a presidential campaign. "The war's unpopular, and there's a clear distinction you can make on that issue."
McCain has unwaveringly supported the Iraq war, and he was a leading advocate of the troop surge. While the surge has produced some military progress, polls find that as many as two-thirds of voters remain opposed to the war.
Democratic front-runner Barack Obama already has worked one McCain comment — that the United States could be in Iraq for 100 years — into his stump speeches, calling that "reason enough not to give him four years in the White House."
While Democrats consider McCain too steadfast on the war, they argue that he's not steadfast enough on other issues.
Obama has hit McCain with the dreaded "flip-flopper" epithet, which helped torpedo Democrat John Kerry in 2004 and Republican Mitt Romney in 2008.
"I admired Senator McCain when he stood up and said that it offended his 'conscience' to support the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy in a time of war, that he couldn't support a tax cut where 'so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate,' " Obama said recently. "But somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the 'Straight Talk Express' lost its wheels, because now he's all for them."
The liberal blogosphere also is lambasting McCain for allegedly backing off his support for comprehensive immigration changes and for voting against a bill that banned waterboarding, even as McCain decries the interrogation tactic as an illegal form of torture. And the Democratic National Committee is laying waste to entire forests by spitting out multiple press releases daily that question McCain's "straight talk."
The attacks generally ignore nuances in McCain's positions. McCain has compared a potential decades-long military commitment to Iraq to the post-World War II U.S. military presences in Asia and Europe. McCain still supports comprehensive immigration changes, but he says that political reality requires that the borders be secured first.
On the torture bill, McCain said that waterboarding already was illegal and that he didn't want to extend the military's limitations on interrogations to intelligence agencies, which the bill did. He also says that letting the Bush tax cuts expire amounts to a tax increase for those who benefit from them.
But high-stakes political messaging isn't about respecting your opponents' complex arguments.
"He isn't the old John McCain. He's George Bush!" said Steve Murphy, who ran New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's Democratic presidential campaign.
While tying McCain to a president whose approval ratings languish around 30 percent, Democrats also see an opening in McCain's history of splits with the Republicans' conservative base.
"The ideological squeeze play he's in is something a Democrat can take advantage of," Carrick said. "He's having to do the opposite of what most candidates want to do in a general election and please the right" rather than tack toward the center.
McCain's age also may become an issue, especially if the 71-year-old senator faces the 46-year-old Obama. (Hillary Clinton is 60.)
But McCain campaign manager Rick Davis thinks the age disparity can be turned to McCain's advantage.
"Certainly, that's the Barack Obama contrast with John McCain," Davis told reporters last week. "It's nice of him to constantly point out how nice he thinks of John McCain and his half-century of service to our country. I don't think he can get that out enough. I think it's great. I actually think a half a century of service to our country is a good thing.
"If you would like to talk about the day John McCain went into the Naval Academy and pledged loyalty to our country, and everything that's happened since then, let's prosecute that. We love those kinds of discussions . . . . I wouldn't mind engaging on what that half a century of service means."