Senator John McCain, much more so that presidential rivals Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, is taking heat for his support of the troop "surge" in Iraq. For example, McCain received widespread coverage when he blasted congressional Democrats this week for trying to pass legislation setting a date for withdrawal.
Specifically, McCain condemned a measure -- approved on a 50-48 test vote in the Senate -- to include a spring 2008 timetable for bringing American troops home. McCain said the war has been "badly mismanaged but there are signs of progress everywhere....The consequences of failure are catastrophic because if we come home, bin Laden and Zarqawi, they are going to follow us."
This provoked a strong anti-McCain reaction. "What happened to McCain the maverick?" asked a spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq in an e-mail sent to reporters. "Senator McCain showed his true colors when he caved in to political party pressure and opposed a change in course for Iraq."
In contrast, Giuliani took a similar stand at a campaign appearance, arguing that, "To put up the white flag and announce a timetable for retreat seems like a very bad strategy to me." But his remarks didn't get as much coverage -- or attract the same level of criticism -- as McCain's.
McCain allies say this is unfair but it's something they may have to live with -- illustrating some important dynamics of the current race for the White House. For one thing, McCain confronts the issue head on at every opportunity and refuses to submerge his strong belief that the United States must insist on victory.
"He's been very vocal about the need to win the war in Iraq," says a McCain aide, who adds that neither Giuliani nor Romney talk about the war as often as McCain does. McCain holds frequent town meetings and gives more interviews with reporters than his rivals do, and the question of Iraq regularly comes up.
Perhaps most important, the focus on McCain shows why so few members of the Senate have succeeded in presidential politics over the years. (The last incumbent senator to win the White House was John F. Kennedy in 1960).
Senators have so many controversial votes to defend and so many constituencies to placate, all under the glare of publicity, that they are pulled from all sides. Finally, as a member of the Senate, McCain must deal with Iraq in all its complications, day after day, while his rivals don't face the same demands.
By Kenneth T. Walsh