Yet on Friday morning, there sat the Republican nominee – a politician who has built an all but saintly reputation for “straight talk” over the years – caught in a vise between Joy Behar and Barbara Walters and getting a lecture from each on honesty.
“They’re lies,” Behar said of two recent lines of attack from the McCain campaign
“By the way, you yourself said the same thing about putting lipstick on a pig,” interjected Walters as a defensive McCain struggled to respond.
The two daytime talk show hosts are hardly alone.
McCain’s tactics are drawing the scorn of many in the media and organizations tasked with fact-checking the truthfulness of campaigns. In recent weeks, Team McCain has been described as dishonorable, disingenuous and downright cynical.
A series of ads – ranging from accusations that Barack Obama backed teaching sex education to Illinois kindergartners to charges that Obama called Sarah Palin a lipstick-wearing pig – have provoked a cascade of criticism of McCain’s tactics.
The furor presents a breathtaking contrast to McCain’s image as a kind of anti-politician who plays fair, disdains politics as usual and has never forgotten how his 2000 presidential campaign was incinerated by a series of loathsome dirty tricks in the South Carolina primary.
The defense from the candidate himself — heard only on “The View” because he hasn’t held a press conference in over a month — is to essentially claim he’s savaging Obama because the Illinois senator wouldn’t agree to the series of town hall meetings McCain proposed at the end of the Democratic primary season.
“If we had done what I asked Sen. Obama to do, because I’ve been in a lot of other campaigns where I have appeared with the opposition with the people and listened to their hopes and dreams and aspirations, I don't think you'd see the tenor of this campaign," he said.
That’s the candidate’s public answer - and one that a former adviser suggested that McCain may have convinced himself to believe is true.
Current campaign aides and other Republicans who’ve closely watched the race, however, have a very different response to the media elites and good-government scolds: we don’t care what you think.
McCain seems to have made a choice that many politicians succumb to but which he had always promised to avoid - he appears ready to do whatever it takes to win, even it if soils his reputation.
“We recognize it’s not going to be 2000 again,” said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers, alluding to the media’s swooning coverage of McCain’s ill-fated crusade against then-Gov. George W. Bush and the GOP establishment. “But he lost then. We’re running a campaign to win. And we’re not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it.”
Rogers, who hung tough with McCain through the dark days of the primary and has lived through every high and low of this turbulent and unpredictable race, argues that they tried to run a high-ground campaign and sought to keep the candidate in front of the media in the fashion he enjoys. His point: No one paid any attention.
“We ran a different kind of campaign and nobody cared about us. They didn’t cover John McCain. So now you’ve got to be forward-leaning in everything.”
Rogers concedes that they were understandably overshadowed by the historic Democratic primary through June, but contends that even after the general election began they could only get attention when McCain committed a gaffe.
“When he’s sitting in back of bus and getting questions about Viagra, I think we undersand at that point you’ve got to make some tactical adjustments,” he said, recalling a particularly awkward gotcha-of-the-day moment on McCain’s bus in early July.
A senior adviser to the campaign echoed Rogers’ point: “Some of the traditional tactics we did for a long time weren’t working, so we adjusted.”
So instead of doing things the traditional McCain way, they tried out the Steve Schmidt way.
Turning to the playbook of a campaign manager who’s been running take-no-prisoners campaigns for years brought immediate changes. It meant ending McCain’s anything-goes sessions with reporters on his bus that had become politically untenable in the Internet and cable news-dominated, 24-7 modern media age. And it meant embracing, rather than fighting, the notion that Obama was the star of the race.
When the August “celebrity” ads cut through the clutter and, for the first time in the campaign, put Obama on defense, McCain aides felt they’d got their answer about whether tougher was smarter.
Similar affirmation came when Obama first suggested McCain would bring race into the campaign – and the Republican side smothered the tactic by countering that it was Obama who was playing the race card.
McCain strategists now have became even more sure of themselves following the picture-perfect reaction – in the GOP’s view – to the decision to put Sarah Palin on the ticket. The choice provoked derision from elites, jubilation among conservative voters long skeptical of McCain and uncertainty from Obama about how to respond. If you are a McCain staffer, it doesn’t get better than that – so who cares that the candidate had only met her once and her chief foreign policy credential seems to be living nearer Russia than other Americans.
With polls moving in their direction and a unanimous view in the political world that the fundamentals of the race have changed dramatically in the last few weeks, McCain aides aren’t about to drop a flood-the-zone approach that they believe has worked. “Most people would have been afraid to have called him out on race,” boasted an adviser. “And we’re not going to let sexism or denigration of her go unchecked now.”
On all three counts - their portrayal of Obama as a celebrity, outrage at his purported use of race and his flat-footedness and confusion on how to respond to Palin - McCain aides saw weakness and indecision.
It adds up to a campaign that is now unapologetically aggressive and aimed almost entirely at keeping Obama off-message, even if it means hitting him below the belt in the process.
“Clearly we intend to stay on offense,” said Rogers. “That’s what we need to do because the campaign is fundamentally about him. We feel comfortable about the ads we’re running and arguments we’re marking.”
And, given their surge in the polls and Obama’s uncertainty about how to respond to the Palin phenomenon, they’re going to keep it up.
“Every day not talking about the economy, the war and how to fix a broken system is a victory for McCain,” said John Weaver, a former top strategist to the nominee who left the campaign last year. “They’re going to ride it as long as they can and as long as the mainstream media puts up every ridiculous charge.”
The negative and often exaggerated or misleading claims being made about Obama and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, especially those playing on Palin’s gender, are just too irresistible for the process-consumed online and cable news media that now drives the campaign conversation, Weaver said.
“Unless there is a hurricane, they’re going to cover it,” he observed.
Adds Terry Nelson, McCain’s former campaign manager: “It works in part because Obama responds to it.”
The question now, though, is just how long McCan can keep riding the wave of process and Palin.
“If they don’t attack her, she’s going to go back to being the vice presidential nominee,” said Nelson of the Democrats. “And in the natural scheme of things, the focus will go back to McCain and Obama.”
At that point, “the biggest burden for the McCain campaign will be to convey a compelling, positive vision for the country’s future."
A top McCain adviser said they’re hoping to keep the still-flowing momentum from their convention going as long as they can.
“But we’ve always been planning to get back on the economy, jobs and energy,” said this strategist.
And even if they weren’t, the campaign calendar would demand it.
McCain and Obama face off in three debates, beginning on September 26th at Ole Miss - events that will force a focus, at least temporarily, on issues rather than pigs, lipstick and the sex lives of kindergartners.