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John McCain's war

John McCain's unwavering support for the war has driven away Democrats and liberals, but not his more natural constituency -- conservatives, Republicans and independents.   By Charlie Cook, National Journal.
/ Source: National Journal

On one level, it is absolutely true that John McCain's (R) unwavering support for the increasingly contentious war in Iraq is creating problems for the Arizona senator, particularly his support for an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq.

Even many Republicans who were steadfast in supporting President Bush on Iraq are getting a little weak in the knees with the mounting casualty rates, unrelenting bad news, pessimistic intelligence reports and the nearly incontrovertible evidence that we have found ourselves in the middle of a sectarian civil war.

Could the war jeopardize McCain's front-runner status? Of course it could. It would be hard to argue otherwise.

But has it held McCain back? Is there evidence that he has been hurt by the war?

Given his campaign team and stream of endorsements, it wouldn't appear to have held him up much, but that's inside baseball stuff. What about with voters, folks outside the Beltway and the political world?

McCain campaign strategists argue that McCain's positive ratings run high among likely voters and are the same as they were in June 2005 and are even a little higher than they were in June of last year.

What has happened is a sorting out of who does and who does not have positive opinions of McCain.

McCain has long had an unusually high -- probably unrealistically high -- level of support among liberals and Democrats, with a bit more tepid support among conservatives and Republicans.

Over the last two years, liberals and Democrats have drifted from McCain, in part because of his support for the war and probably somewhat due to his commencement address last year at the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

At the same time, though, McCain seems to have improved among Republicans and conservatives, and has remained strong -- maybe even improved a bit -- among independents.

There have always been quite a few conservatives and Republicans who have suspected that McCain was a closet moderate or liberal, maybe even a Democrat in disguise.

But his conservative voting record and staunch support for Bush and the war have allayed many of those fears, while the Democrats and liberals who had considered McCain one of the few Republicans they would actually vote for have been disabused of that notion.

Hence the sorting out, with partisans and ideologues heading toward their respective corners in a process that probably would have happened sooner or later anyway.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani's (R) liberal-to-moderate positions on social and cultural issues, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's (R) past positions on some of those same issues might further solidify McCain's bona fides among some conservatives.

McCain might still have trouble winning over institutional conservatives who loathe his campaign finance reform proposals. For them it is personal and probably unshakeable.

Independents would be the key group to watch for possible defections, depending on who else is in the running, but so far it doesn't appear to be happening.

The McCain camp points to polling that shows him with higher positive ratings among independents who are likely voters, and only a 20-percent negative rating. Those same strategists say the positive numbers compare favorably to those in 2005 and last year.

Keep in mind that independents can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries in New Hampshire, giving them a different dynamic than Iowa or, for that matter, primaries and caucuses in most states that are dominated by the party faithful.

It makes polling in New Hampshire trickier, and to the extent that a disproportionate number of independents vote in either primary, it gives that primary a very different and less ideological complexion.

This hardly means that McCain is off the hook over Iraq. He just has not yet suffered serious harm from the war.

The American people have turned a corner on the war. They are very much against it and aren't likely to turn back unless there is a remarkable change in the direction of the conflict within probably just three or four months. That doesn't leave much time for Bush's new strategy to work, if it will work at all.

McCain has already distanced himself from former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. He has been critical of Rumsfeld for his handling of the war, and of Cheney for his advice to the president.

More recently McCain turned up the heat on Army Gen. George Casey, who had been the commander in Iraq and is now up for confirmation as Army chief of staff. But McCain's distancing of himself from ownership of the war -- or perhaps partial ownership would be fairer -- is still a work in progress.