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McCain Cast As Warrior For Better Or Worse

This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.


It seems that even John McCain - who, over the course of more than 20 years in the Senate and two presidential runs, has become a familiar name - isn't yet beyond an introduction.

McCain's campaign has spent the past week engaged in a "biography tour," which wraps up tomorrow in Prescott, Arizona, designed to reintroduce the presumptive GOP nominee to voters.

The tour, which has gotten less media attention than the campaign had hoped thanks to the continued uncertainty in the Democratic race, has offered a new and fascinating portrait of the young McCain. The candidate has cast himself as a mediocre, rebellious student who gradually developed the values and strength he needed to survive five years in a North Vietnamese prison and become the man he is today.

As he has filled in some of the details of his early years, however, McCain has continued to position himself as a candidate tied, to an overarching extent, to the military and military service - even as he's tried to broaden that theme out to embrace all kinds of service. The tour, dubbed "Service To America," included stops at the U.S. Naval Academy and the Mississippi town where McCain trained fighter pilots; all week, he has stressed his Naval Academy exploits and his time as a soldier and prisoner of war, as well as his family's long history of service.

This is not unfamiliar ground for the McCain campaign: Particularly in its advertising, the campaign has repeatedly tied the candidate to military heroism. McCain's first general election ad, "624787" - a reference to his military number - shows a young McCain laying in a hospital bed after having been captured and tortured in Vietnam. A web-only ad called "A Man In The Arena" includs images of Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt; Another web ad, "Journey To Freedom," covers similar ground.

The decision to stress McCain's military ties is perhaps not surprising from a candidate whose campaign resurgence was linked to his continued support of the Iraq war, and whose heroic personal history offers an appealing narrative. But it does not come without risks. Democrats have looked to portray McCain as a warmonger unwilling to pull out of an extended and unpopular conflict - note their (perhaps unfair) criticism of his comments concerning staying in Iraq for 100 years. And with the economy in an apparent downturn and Americans citing economic issues as their chief concern, McCain needs to convince Americans that he is capable of handling economic issues, not just military ones, according to Democratic strategist Bob Shrum.

"McCain now has to satisfy people that he doesn't think the answer to every problem is confrontation and war," Shrum said. "And that he's not going to stubbornly stay in Iraq no matter what. And he can't let people think it's all national security and none of it is about the economy. He needs to give people a sense that he knows a lot about it and he cares a lot about it."

Still, Republican consultant John Feehery calls McCain's biography tour a "good play."

"He's coming off as a fierce patriot, someone who really loves this country, and that makes a nice contrast to the Democrats," Feehery said. "I think it will play well with older voters, blue-collar Reagan Democrat types. It won't play well with war protesters, but that's ok."

Nonetheless, Feehery said, McCain's focus on the past has its disadvantages - it could remind people that McCain, for all his heroic exploits, is no longer a young man. (McCain will be 72 on inauguration day, which would make him the oldest first-term president in history.) And he acknowledges that McCain could be vulnerable if he is seen as insufficiently focused on the economy, a topic that McCain acknowledged in 2005 that he knows "a lot less about" than military and foreign policy issues.

"He's got to work effectively after the biography tour to shore up that vulnerability," Feehery said. "He's got a record as something of an economic populist, but he's surrounded himself with advisors like Phil Gramm who are Milton Friedman-type economists. He's got to make a decision which way he wants to go on that."

In 2004, another Vietnam-era war hero, John Kerry, ran for president on the Democratic ticket. Despite his war heroism, Kerry spent much of the campaign defending his military service.

"When he stood up at the Democratic convention and said, 'I'm John Kerry reporting for duty and here are all my buds,' he walked into an ambush," said Chris LaCivita, a national republican consultant who worked with the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, an advocacy group that ran ads questioning Kerry's military record.

"Kerry decided to make his military legacy an anti-military legacy," said LaCivita. "He was defaming and attacking members of the military that served in Vietnam when he got back from war. His service record was always this cloud, this mishmash of memories."

LaCivita argues that McCain doesn't have that problem.

"In the case of John McCain, the reason why [stressing his military history is] a no-brainer, and a good solid foundation in which for him to build on, is because his record of service, his family's legacy of service, is completely and utterly beyond reproach. You can't touch it."

Shrum, who was Kerry's campaign manager, agrees.

"I don't think anybody is going to attack John McCain on military issues," he said. "I don't think there's the remotest chance of that happening."

McCain's vulnerability, he said, comes from the potential perception not that he is insufficiently committed to the military but that he is too committed to military intervention.

"The 'bomb Iran' thing was not smart. And the '100 years' is a statement he's just going to have to live with," Shrum said, comparing it to Kerry's comment that he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," which exposed the candidate to charges of flip-flopping.

Republican strategist Todd Harris, a former McCain spokesman who is friendly with the campaign, said McCain is right to talk up his military ties.

"McCain is already so defined by his military service that to do anything but embrace that critical part of his biography would seem disingenuous to voters," he said.

"Sen. McCain is rightfully proud of the military tradition in his family," added Harris. "The campaign thinks that his national service is something that has helped prepare him to lead our country during the difficult times. And I expect to hear a lot more about it in the future."
By Brian Montopoli

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