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Is John McCain Bob Dole?

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McCain and reporters on the bus in New Hampshire last November.  

The morning after McCain clinched the nomination, I hopped onboard his campaign jet and flew with him to Washington, where he was scheduled to have a congratulatory lunch with George W. Bush. (The menu? Hot dogs.) During the flight, standing in the aisle, I asked Schmidt—who channeled his ferocity on behalf of Bush in 2004, Dick Cheney in 2005, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006—how McCain planned to deal with his infamous “100 years” remark about Iraq. “We trust the American people to be able to figure this out,” he said in a tone, combative and stagy, that called to mind vintage James Carville. “We don’t think the American people are stupid. Do you think they are stupid?”

Well, to be honest, sometimes yes and sometimes no—but that, as Schmidt was well aware, is beside the point. Equally irrelevant, in the end, is the argument raging between the McCain and Obama camps over the proper and fair interpretation of the sound bite in question. What’s pertinent to the race ahead is that McCain has been unwavering in his commitment to keeping U.S. troops in Iraq for an indeterminate period of time. And that this stance puts him on the wrong side of the public on one of the two central issues on which the general election is likely to turn.

“For the past year-plus, the public has said they want to change our policy and they want to get out, and McCain has put himself squarely in the status quo corner,” says the pollster Peter Hart. Indeed, according to a new Gallup survey, voters favor setting a firm timetable for troop withdrawal by a margin of 60 percent to 35 percent. “There’s no way the public is going to say, ‘Well, we’re going to reassess things now that we see it from McCain’s point of view,’ ” adds Hart. “His difficulty is that the public has figured this out.”

McCain’s difficulties may be even more pronounced on the second pivotal issue: the economy. During the New Hampshire primary, McCain blurted out the domestic equal of his “100 years” gaffe: “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should; I’ve got Greenspan’s book,” he said, though he later allowed that he had yet to crack its spine. In time, McCain would contend that he was just being momentarily glib; that he may be no economist, but he has a firm grasp of the subject. Yet repeatedly over the years, McCain—a former chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, mind you—has said things strikingly similar, to everyone from The Wall Street Journal to David Brooks.

Even the most loyal Republicans express concern about McCain’s economics gap. “He’s never been particularly fluent in or showed much intellectual interest toward economic matters,” says Pete Wehner, who ran the Office of Strategic Initiatives in Bush’s White House. “Can he speak fluently or compellingly about them? We’ll soon see. But it would require him to lift his game.”

Problematic as McCain’s lack of economic fluency may be, it’s only part of what plagues him. Another is the substantive ground he occupies. “People don’t realize that he’s Bush II on economic policy,” says Mike Podhorzer, the deputy political director of the AFL-CIO. “When we tell people in focus groups where he is on health care, Social Security, and the minimum wage, they are shocked. And they immediately say, ‘I have to reconsider what I think about him.’ ”

Painting McCain as Bush’s twin will obviously be central to the Democrats’ strategy this fall regardless of whether Obama or Clinton wins the nomination. As Hart notes, “McCain’s single greatest weakness is that many voters believe he will be part and parcel of the policies that Bush has promulgated.” Podhorzer, for his part, is already at it, having recently launched a union-financed effort designed to label him a “Bush McClone.”

No sane person would assume that such efforts will be a slam-dunk, given that McCain’s media-amplified image runs counter to the notion that he’s a clone of anyone, let alone 43. “McCain has that reformist, maverick history that people identify him with,” says Bush’s former media guru Mark McKinnon, who now plays the same role for McCain. “They know he’s not a typical Republican and has had his issues with the president over time, so they don’t see him as in bed with the president or the Republican Party that they believe has in recent years come to represent the status quo.”

The evidence buttressing McKinnon’s assertion isn’t hard to locate. Among independent voters, according to Gallup, McCain leads Obama by a spread of 42-29 and Clinton by 48-23. And an even more striking sign of his crossover appeal was cited by Karl Rove in a speech he gave last month in Washington. “About twice as many Democrats support McCain as Republicans support Obama, and about three times as many Democrats support McCain as Republicans support Clinton,” Rove said. “The media is all wired up about these ‘Obamacans’ … but the real story of this election is the ‘McCainocrats.’ ”


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