Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, heads into the first debate on Friday with a track record as a scrappy combatant and the instincts of a fighter pilot, prepared to take out his opponent and willing to take risks to do so.
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He has used fairly consistent techniques during his roughly 30 debates on the national stage: he is an aggressive competitor who scolds his opponents, grins when he scores and is handy with the rhetorical shiv. Just ask Mitt Romney, whom Mr. McCain filleted on several occasions in debates during the primaries, perhaps most infuriatingly for Mr. Romney when Mr. McCain misleadingly asserted that Mr. Romney favored a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
A review of several of Mr. McCain’s debates shows that he is most comfortable and authentic when the subject is foreign policy. And in a stroke of good fortune, foreign policy is the topic for Friday, the first of three 90-minute debates with Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee.
Voters give higher marks to Mr. McCain as a potential commander in chief, and Mr. Obama should expect Mr. McCain to question his credentials for the job at every turn — and to distort his views, as Mr. Romney insisted he did.
Mr. McCain is likely to steer the conversation, as he has in past debates, to his captivity in Vietnam. It was the bedrock experience of his life and is the organizing principle of his political identity.
He showcased it most triumphantly last October in a debate in Orlando, Fla. The moderator noted that while Mr. McCain had strongly supported the troop surge in Iraq, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the likely Democratic nominee, wanted to pull the troops out. Mr. McCain was asked whether the surge was a winning issue for Republicans in 2008. With a quick nod to the troops, Mr. McCain, characteristically, hijacked the question and skipped to pork-barrel spending, his favorite bête noire.
“In case you missed it, a few days ago, Senator Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum,” Mr. McCain said slyly. “Now, my friends, I wasn’t there,” he continued, letting it sink in why he had missed that ’60s be-in.
“I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” he deadpanned, pausing again to stoke the culture wars. “I was tied up at the time.” The audience roared with approval and rose to its feet for an extended ovation. It was an overwhelming display of affirmation almost unheard of in a debate format.
Most of Mr. McCain’s moments on the debate stage are rarely that dramatic, but they are not without flair. He uses short, active verbs that project strength, and he can connect with audiences on a visceral level using down-to-earth language. He was one of 10 Republicans on stage when the primary debates began in May 2007, but he managed to stand out with one vivid remark. Saying he would do “whatever is necessary” to capture Osama bin Laden, he declared, “I’ll follow him to the gates of hell.”
But that debate also showed that Mr. McCain’s performances could be uneven. He stumbled over some words. He looked confused at several junctures and was slow on the draw, retrieving his time on occasion to amend earlier answers. At one point, Mr. McCain seemed surprised by a question about whether he believed in evolution. Yes, he said. But when some of his rivals said they did not, Mr. McCain went back. “I believe in evolution,” he said. “But I also believe, when I hike the Grand Canyon and see it at sunset, that the hand of God is there also.”
When the topic strays from foreign policy, Mr. McCain’s interest can fade and he can lapse into his stump speech.
“McCain’s major weakness is looking wooden, and when he’s out of his comfort zone, his sound bites become weaker and his evasions of questions become more obvious,” said David Lanoue, a political scientist at the University of Alabamaand an expert in presidential debates.
What lasts from a review of Mr. McCain’s national debates — 21 this primary season and more than seven in 2000 that included George W. Bush— is that he relishes direct confrontation. He presents himself as the authority on the broad themes of war and peace, life and death. And depending on his level of contempt for his opponent, he can drip with condescension, even as he sits calmly with his hands folded in front of him, smiling.
“I told you once before, Alan, and I’m sorry I have to tell you again,” Mr. McCain said to Alan Keyes, a Republican presidential candidate, in 2000. “I’ve seen enough killing in my life, a lot more than you have. I know, I know, how valuable and precious human life is.”
Drawing Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, into a trap in the CNN/YouTube debate last November, Mr. McCain said, “Well, Governor, I’m astonished that you haven’t found out what waterboardingis.” Mr. Romney said he did know, prompting Mr. McCain to express further astonishment that Mr. Romney would not call it torture.
But in that debate, it was Representative Ron Paulof Texas, an opponent of the war in Iraq, who was the object of Mr. McCain’s most righteous fury. “I want to tell you that that kind of isolationism, sir, is what caused World War II,” Mr. McCain declared, as he doubled back from a question about taxes. After some boos, he continued, “We allowed Hitlerto come to power with that kind of attitude of isolationism and appeasement.”
David S. Birdsell, who specializes in political communication and presidential debates at Baruch College, said Mr. McCain could be “irascible and pugnacious and clearly stoked by personal animosity.” It will be a challenge for him to keep that side in check, Mr. Birdsell said, especially toward Mr. Obama, who is 25 years Mr. McCain’s junior and who Mr. McCain believes has not paid his dues.
“Can McCain restrain himself?” Mr. Birdsell asked. “And will Obama have the ability to place the pinpricks at the right moment to elicit that negative, slashing, awkwardly grinning McCain?”
This article, "A scrappy fighter, McCain honed his debating style in and out of politics," first appeared in the New York Times.
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