McCain Aides Dispute Criticism That Campaign Is On Wrong Course

Strategists for John McCain vigorously dispute criticism from Republican insiders that the Arizona senator's campaign is on the wrong course.

The strategists say national opinion polls which show former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani strongly in the lead for the Republican presidential nomination aren't predictive because it's so early in the political cycle and because Giuliani's vulnerabilities haven't been fully explored yet.

A McCain adviser made those points -- and a number of others -- in an interview with U.S. News prompted by a story on the U.S. News Web site yesterday. That piece described the view of McCain critics, including some of his past supporters, that he is making a mistake by campaigning as the Establishment Republican and the inevitable nominee -- as George W. Bush did in 2000 -- when times have changed, people are fed up with the Establishment, and the approach of 2000 is no longer valid.

But the McCain adviser says that, even though McCain is trailing Giuliani nationally, the senator is leading in New Hampshire and South Carolina and doing very well in Iowa, three important early tests in 2008. Also, voters still have a highly favorable view of McCain, and he remains popular among independents.

McCain has also been getting a large amount of favorable news coverage lately for his openness and accessibiilty as he campaigns in the early states, and this is likely to boost his standing. Finally, McCain strategists say that his principled stands on issues, including his support for Bush's troop increase in Iraq, will be impressive to voters in contrast to other candidates who are changing their minds or avoiding tough issues.

"John McCain is still his own candidate," says the McCain aide. Less noticeable but also important, the Arizona Republican has been methodically building a very impressive grass-roots organization across the country that will propel him to the nomination next year, McCain strategists add.

By Kenneth T. Walsh