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Vocal on Iraq, McCain keeps quiet on Bush

As he campaigns, Senator John McCain has focused his support for the Iraq war on Gen. David H. Petraeus, not President Bush.
/ Source: The New York Times

Defiant and energetic, Senator John McCain has taken his “No Surrender” tour to V.F.W. halls, parades and barbecues in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. He talks about his support for a renewed effort to win the Iraq war. He pays tribute to Gen. David H. Petraeus and the report he issued about progress in Iraq.

The one thing that Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, does not talk about is President Bush.

Mr. McCain has entered a pivotal period in what he now sardonically describes as his “lean and mean” campaign, faced with unexpected opportunities but also huge obstacles, two months after many of his supporters had all but written off his campaign, riven with debt and staff dissension. At stop after stop, he has seized on General Petraeus’s report as a validation not only of the so-called surge strategy in Iraq but also of his argument, made long before the White House came to the same conclusion, that victory in Iraq required many more troops there.

But even as he lashes his presidential campaign that much tighter to the war in Iraq, Mr. McCain is seeking to decouple his fortunes from those of Mr. Bush, in the latest chapter of a 10-year relationship that has been at times tortured, at times cordial, at times symbiotic.

So it is that Mr. McCain sprinkles his speeches not with references to Mr. Bush but to General Petraeus, a shift that not only mirrors the White House strategy of putting the military out front but also symbolically encapsulates a recognition of what many Republicans consider to have been a fundamental mistake of Mr. McCain in his candidacy: trying to present himself as Mr. Bush’s anointed successor and ideological heir.

Balancing act
The situation demands that Mr. McCain maintain a balance between continuing to embrace a defining characteristic of Mr. Bush’s presidency, his dogged insistence on fighting on in Iraq, even as he distances himself from the administration. He lauds General Petraeus, portraying him as a hero to cheering crowds — “thank God America is blessed with that kind of leadership,” he said in Sioux City — but also excoriates Donald H. Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, for the way he led the war.

The goal seems to be to acknowledge both public distress over the war and concerns even among Republicans about the White House’s competence without directly assailing Mr. Bush himself, a step that could still alienate the most loyal of the party’s voters, those who tend to turn out in primaries.

When Mr. McCain, standing outside a V.F.W. hall in Rock Hill, S.C., was asked on Saturday if he and Mr. Bush were now on the same page on the war, he responded in markedly measured tones. “At this moment,” Mr. McCain said. “For nearly four years we were on opposite sides, because I believed and knew the Rumsfeld strategy was failing.”

At the very least, the confluence of two campaigns — one by Mr. Bush and his supporters to rally public support for the war, and the other by Mr. McCain to effectively jump-start his candidacy — has won Mr. McCain a burst of new attention in the early primary states.

New energy
And Mr. McCain, who had been all but written off two months ago when he fired many of his campaign staff members in response to a collapse in fund-raising and poll numbers, has responded with new energy and cheer.

As he campaigned across New Hampshire and Iowa, Mr. McCain was met with sizable and often enthusiastic crowds, though many of them said in interviews that they were on the fence or supporting other candidates. The New Hampshire Union Leader was not alone in proclaiming him the winner of a Republican candidates’ debate in New Hampshire last week.

And Mr. McCain, in an interview, said he thought he could win New Hampshire as he did in 2000, while expressing less hope about Iowa; his description of his chances was much the same as those offered by independent analysts. “We really have taken some lumps,” he said. “But I’m guardedly optimistic about New Hampshire. In Iowa, we have a lot of work to do, and I think we have to understand that this is a very significant challenge.”

In proclaiming support for the war while distancing himself from Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain is embarking on another chapter in a relationship that has shaped his career and image in ways he is still grappling with. With just months to prove that he is still a viable candidate, Mr. McCain is trying to undo the effects of a decision in recent years to put the bitterness of his early relationship with Mr. Bush aside in favor of a close association that went well beyond the war.

Currying favor?
That decision raised questions among Republicans about whether Mr. McCain had abandoned his independence to win favor with the White House and the conservative base of the party. Last year, Mr. McCain appeared at Liberty University, next to its founder, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, the conservative religious leader whom he had once described as an agent of intolerance and a threat to the party.

“From a political standpoint, the most important thing any candidate has is their authentic brand: That is why he was always so popular, always drew such big crowds,” said Matthew Dowd, who was Mr. Bush’s chief strategist in 2004 before having a falling out with the White House. “But when he became, ‘I want to try to get the popularity of Bush among Republicans,’ his brand dropped. He didn’t gain anything in getting closer to Bush. And he diminished his brand.”

Mr. McCain indeed was a constant figure at Mr. Bush’s side, famously pictured giving him a bearhug in the 2004 campaign. And he came to Mr. Bush’s defense on many issues, including the war, in the last four years, as he methodically shed his image of the maverick unafraid to attack the White House.

That said, the relationship has been alternately poisonous and unctuous since the 2000 South Carolina primary in which Mr. Bush defeated Mr. McCain. At one point, an aide said, Mr. McCain barked an obscenity upon watching Mr. Bush stand silent as a voter questioned Mr. McCain’s commitment to veterans.

When Mr. McCain lost South Carolina, he at first refused to place the obligatory telephone call of congratulations to Mr. Bush, instructing a senior adviser, John Weaver, to do it, before finally taking the telephone and speaking to Mr. Bush, witnesses said. Mr. McCain at the time blamed the Bush campaign for spreading rumors that he had an illegitimate child; Bush aides have always denied doing so.

The two repaired their relationship, after Mr. Bush won the nomination, at a private meeting. “It was one of those conversations where you sit down and it’s sort of stilted at first and we talked about sports and we talked about some of the things that we both like,” Mr. McCain said. “And then the conversation became more comfortable.”

Mr. Bush had warned aides that Mr. McCain was a “loose cannon” during their fight in South Carolina. Since then, Mr. Bush’s friends said, the president has warmed somewhat to Mr. McCain, even though they said he never quite understood or completely trusted him. Mr. McCain said that he and his wife, Cindy, have had dinner with Mr. Bush and Laura Bush only once — and that the meal lasted about 45 minutes. “It was rather brief,” Mr. McCain said with a chuckle.

McCain brand diminished?
Mr. McCain did not dispute the observation that his brand, as Mr. Dowd put it, had been diminished. He jumped in to finish the question when asked if coming to Mr. Bush’s defense had tarnished his image. “As a maverick and independent and all that?” Mr. McCain said. “Well, maybe the perception did change because, you know, MoveOn.Org ran all those ads showing me and Bush embracing. I understand that. But on any specific issues there was no change. Again, life isn’t fair. I went from being the greatest critic of the failed Rumsfeld strategy to now being tied to the war as Bush’s guy on the war.”

Politics is cyclical; people who are down tend to rise up, and Americans tend to embrace comeback stories, no matter how implausible. Which is to say that none of this means Mr. McCain is back: His obstacles remain huge, and advisers to all his major rivals say they see little or no chance of his re-emergence.

The first reason is financial; Mr. McCain, in a bus in New Hampshire and Iowa, could be heard on his cellphone raising money in anticipation of a fund-raising report next month. Several McCain advisers said it would be tough to continue if he did not break this year’s pattern and raise enough money to at least pay for a campaign.

The second is the political calendar, which is problematic for anyone trying to run an underdog campaign. If Mr. McCain wins New Hampshire, he still has to deal with what is in effect a national primary on Feb. 5, when as many as 20 states hold contests, a scenario that seems tailor-made for a candidate with money.

And should he really begin taking off, his opponents would no doubt come after him with advertisements reminding voters of the issue that caused him trouble before: his support for measures allowing some illegal immigrants to become citizens. One reason for Mr. McCain’s resurgence is that time and passions on immigration have since cooled.

And whatever happens in Iraq, the war could pose an obstacle to Mr. McCain in New Hampshire, where independents are permitted to vote in either party’s primary. Mr. McCain won the state in 2000 in large part because independents flocked to him; Mr. McCain acknowledged that antiwar sentiment was high in New Hampshire this time around, suggesting that independents might turn to a Democrat.

Jennifer Steinhauer contributed reporting from Rock Hill, S.C.