WATERLOO, Iowa — Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican presidential nominee, said Sunday that he was a proud Republican but believed the Bush administration had failed in a number of areas, asking voters to remember that “I’m not George Bush.”
In recent days, the McCain campaign has aggressively run away from Bush and his unpopularity with voters, blaming him for the economic downturn and a record national debt. In an interview with NBC News last week, McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, identified Bush’s unpopularity as the campaign’s most serious obstacle .
Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” McCain acknowledged that he has voted with Bush more than 90 percent of the time, but he said that on the most important issues — U.S. strategies in Iraq, climate change and the economy — “I was not popular in my own party.”
“I respect the president of the United States, of course,” McCain said in the interview with NBC’s Tom Brokaw. But “there were a number of disagreements over philosophy.”
‘Competitive in many battleground states’
McCain appeared on “Meet the Press” from Waterloo on the 41st anniversary of the day he was shot down in his Navy jet over North Vietnam. He has said that day and the 5½ years of captivity and torture that followed taught him to rely on himself and fight the odds.
That could explain his continued interest in Iowa, which he visited this weekend for the fourth time in the last five weeks. Political analysts — including some on his own staff — said they were puzzled because polls show McCain’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, with an 8- to 15-percentage-point lead in the state, including a 11-point lead in the latest NBC News/Mason-Dixon poll.
“We have lost Iowa and New Mexico,” an unnamed McCain staff member told the political newspaper Politico late last week.
McCain made it clear Sunday that he preferred to follow his own assessment of the political winds.
Video: McCain: Campaign is ‘doing fine’ “I’ve been in a lot of presidential campaigns ... and I see the intensity out there, and I see the passion,” he said, claiming that most polls, in Iowa and nationwide, “have shown me much further behind than we actually are.”
“We’re doing fine,” he maintained. “We are very competitive in many of the battleground states.”
Palin ‘a role model for millions’
McCain said his determination was a trait he shared with Palin, denying reports last week that a rift had developed between them.
Asked about reports that concern over Palin’s inexperience was leading some voters to abandon the Republican ticket, he repeated that as a governor, Palin had more “executive experience” than either Obama or his vice presidential running mate, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. Like McCain, they have spent most of their political careers in legislative positions, and all three have little experience in executive jobs.
“She’s a role model for millions and millions of Americans,” said McCain, who reacted sharply when Brokaw noted that he had spent much of his time “defending” Palin.
“I don’t defend her. I praise her,” he said. “She needs no defense.”
McCain dismissed a report last week that the Republican National Committee had spent about $150,000 on wardrobe and makeup for Palin at a time when it was promoting her as an everyday, middle-American “hockey mom.”
Palin and her family “were thrust into this” with little notice and did not have the resources to outfit her for a national campaign, said McCain, who said Palin “lives a frugal life.”
He called criticism of Palin’s style irrelevant to most Americans, who “right now care about whether they can stay in their homes, whether they have jobs, whether they’re going to have health insurance, whether we’re going to come out of this ditch.”
Obama ridicules new McCain strategy
The Republican National Committee released an advertisement Saturday questioning whether Obama had the experience to be president during such perilous times. The ad, featuring a stormy ocean, says the nation is in “uncertain times” that could get worse and asks whether voters want a president “who’s untested at the helm.”
Campaigning Saturday in Reno, Nev., Obama mocked McCain’s attempts to distance himself from Bush.
“John McCain attacking George Bush for his out-of-hand economic policy is like Dick Cheney attacking George Bush for his go-it-alone foreign policy,” Obama said. Later in the day, Obama put McCain’s criticism of Bush this way: “It’s like Robin getting mad at Batman.”
McCain travels later Sunday to Zanesville, Ohio, for an afternoon rally, followed by an evening event at Ohio University in Lancaster.
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. NBC affiliates KRNV of Reno, Nev., and KWWL of Waterloo, Iowa, contributed to this report.