Politics & Government

McCain's free ride is over, but did he use the time well?

Presidential candidate and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
Presidential candidate and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Chuck Kennedy / MCT

LaCLEDE, Mo. — For nearly three months now, as Democrats quibbled and quarreled in their quest for a presidential nominee, Republican John McCain had a luxury rare in politics: time.

Time to unite a party often suspicious of him, to sketch a vision for the country, to hone attacks on Democrats, to raise money. Time, in short, to prepare for a general election campaign free from intramural squabbling in his own ranks as the rivalry between Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton preoccupied the enemy.

Now, with Democrats set to nominate Obama and the general election campaign under way, McCain's free ride is over. Whether he made the most of the opportunity won't be known until Election Day. But in this north-central Missouri town of fewer than 400, in a Republican-leaning part of an important swing state, some undecided voters looked blank when they were asked about the presumptive nominee.

"I don't know much about McCain," offered Sherry Anderson, an upholsterer and undecided voter in LaClede.

Agreed Ronald Thomas, who works for a nearby bedding company: "I haven't really heard much about him."

That's not good news for the McCain camp: His goal since clinching the nomination March 4 had been to capture the media spotlight, which he knew would focus more on the Clinton-Obama race as it grew testier, and "put down markers on important issues" he wanted to run on, said Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain strategist.

So McCain gave a series of major speeches — on foreign policy, energy and environment, the judiciary, the economy, the housing crisis — aimed at explaining his vision and goals for his presidency.

He also made two high-profile trips, one to Iraq and other Middle East countries, the other to poor parts of the Midwest and South, including New Orleans. During the former, he sought to project his experience in international affairs as a counter to the less-experienced Obama; in the latter, McCain hoped to present himself as a "different kind" of Republican, as his close aide Mark Salter put it.

McCain aired commercials in swing states such as Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, focusing on the economy and on his reputation as a bipartisan problem-solver.

He routinely portrayed Obama, regarded for weeks as the likely nominee, as an out of touch, inexperienced liberal who'd raise taxes and surrender Iraq to al Qaida.

McCain was trying to pull off a tough trick: He had to persuade conservatives and party regulars — long wary of him — that "they'd stumbled into the best candidate they could in a terrible year for Republicans," said Norman Ornstein, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative policy-research center.

At the same time, McCain wooed independent voters weary of war, the Republican Party and President Bush.

So, facing right, he saluted the trip to Iraq and dense foreign-policy speeches, gave an incendiary speech on the judiciary designed to appeal to the right wing and waved an olive branch to the National Rifle Association at its annual convention, a key Republican ally long suspicious of McCain for his calls to close the so-called "gun show loophole," which allows people to buy guns without background checks.

Turning to his left, he also made a conscious effort to separate himself from the Bush years. In several speeches, he criticized the Bush administration: its go-it-alone foreign policy, its failure after Hurricane Katrina, its refusal to be a global leader on climate change.

"It's a difficult case to make, to ... be for change and stability at the same time," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

Whether it had the desired impact is unclear.

"I'm not sure he tried to do anything that trickled down to the voter," said George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University. "Maybe it was in other places. ... In terms of media coverage, we saw Obama and Clinton. He disappeared."

But the intense media focus on Obama and Clinton may have worked to McCain's advantage, Ornstein said.

"He had the great luxury of not only time, but of flying below the radar, so he could send discordant, contradictory messages and not have them immediately thrown back in his face," Ornstein said.

That meant that some missteps may not have mattered much outside Washington's chattering class and some ever-angry bloggers.

For example, McCain's first speech on the housing crisis, in which he said that the federal government had little role to play, was such a dud that he essentially offered a do-over a few weeks later, calling for more federal action.

In Iraq, McCain repeatedly said that Shiite-led Iran was training Sunni al Qaida; a traveling friend, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, had to whisper a correction in McCain's ear. That undercut McCain's claim to superior international experience.

The campaign was beset for days over a controversy about lobbyists advising it. That narrative was especially dangerous for McCain, given his efforts to present himself as a reformer. Infuriating the McCain camp, media coverage all but ignored the fact that Obama also benefits from the advice of corporate lobbyists.

McCain also was forced to renounce endorsements from two prominent evangelical pastors, John Hagee and Rod Parsley, whose inflammatory comments on Islam and other issues proved offensive.

Then, in a week when McCain had hoped to focus on the environment and his distinction from Bush on that increasingly popular issue, he felt forced instead to embrace Bush when the president gave a speech in Israel that implicitly compared Obama to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who declared "peace in our time" after he met with Adolf Hitler.

"Unforced errors," acknowledged a McCain aide, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be quoted acknowledging missteps. "Shouldn't have happened, won't happen again. But there's never been a campaign where stuff like that didn't happen."

Besides the public campaign, McCain focused on more mundane but important tasks such as fundraising and building a general election apparatus.

McCain raised $15.6 million in March and $18.3 million in April, his best numbers yet. That upped his total campaign take to $96.6 million, with $24 million still in the bank.

That's far short of Obama's haul, however. Obama raised $40 million in March and more than $30 million in April, for a campaign-long total of more than $265 million. He has $46 million on hand, nearly double McCain's stash.

Despite all this, McCain remains effectively tied with Obama in most national polls: The average of polls compiled by the independent Web site realclearpolitics.com shows Obama at 45.8 percent and McCain at 44.4 percent.

Schmidt said that proved that McCain's last three months had been a success.

"The result is ... in a year in which the Republican brand is badly shattered, Senator McCain is in the range of slightly ahead, even or slightly behind Senator Obama," Schmidt said. "That's a great place to start the general election in a year that's tough for Republicans."

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