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Can a patriotic pitch save McCain's campaign?

Why a cold-blooded, chest-beating theme of patriotism will either give John McCain a real chance to  win the White House — or consign him to the dust bin of history.
McCain 2008
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, right, watches as Sen. Joseph Lieberman, center, introduces Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain during a town hall meeting in York, Pa. Mary Altaffer / AP
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It’s a colonial era city in the midst of farm country. Famous for its peppermint candy and barbell factory, York also gained notoriety during the Revolutionary War when the Continental Congress stopped here long enough to draft the Articles of Confederation.

The city is a faded monument to a certain kind of American life: 18th century English and German settlements, Pennsylvania long rifles, a wariness of outsiders, social change, and Big City.

This made York the perfect place for John McCain and his team to lay out their core strategy in the race against Barack Obama.

Their messages:

  • I’m an American and he’s not.
  • I’m a patriot and he’s not.
  • I’m a tough son-of-a-gun willing to confront our foes, he’s not.

This cold-blooded, chest-beating theme will either give McCain a real chance to overcome long odds and win the White House — or it will consign him to the dust bin of history.

For years, if not decades, McCain has positioned himself as the "thinking man’s" fighting man.

He sends out the idea that he’s tolerant and eager to cross party lines, while at the same time willing to eschew ideology and fear in the name of finding practical solutions.

That McCain still exists, and it is that man who appeals to independent voters. Among them, the senator still enjoys an certain je ne sais quoi.

But for that very reason, he has never been all that popular with the Reagan-Bush Base — the one Lee Atwater and Karl Rove built — of Southern whites, evangelical Christians and combative necons.

The way to woo that group, McCain & Co. has decided, is to scare the bejesus out of them.

And they’re doing it by highlighting this allegedly un-American, unpatriotic, weak, somehow foreign, and mysterious character named Obama.

We have been through this movie before — in 1988 and 2004 — and both times it helped a Republican named Bush win the election.

But will it work this time? McCain’s camp thinks so.

In York, they sent forth Joe Lieberman, whose bland demeanor hides a hit man’s heart, to explicitly utilize the accusatory theme that McCain has used before.

McCain, for nearly two months now, has been styling himself as a man who puts his “country first.”

He is legitimately using his unwillingness to be given an early release from prison camp during Vietnam as a metaphor.

McCain, the son of admirals, says he knew that the Vietnamese wanted a propaganda tool, and he was not about to become one to aid his own plight.

It’s hard to dispute that, and no one has attacked him for the implication, which is that Obama has not and will not “put the country first.”

In York, Lieberman made things “perfectly clear,” to use an old Nixon term.

Introducing McCain at a large fairgrounds rally, Lieberman said the choice was “between one candidate, John McCain, who has always put the country first, worked across party lines to get things done, and one candidate who has not.”

If the McCain campaign thought Lieberman had gone a step too far, they didn’t say so. Just the opposite: they posted his entire introduction online.

I asked McCain’s closest advisor and friend, Mark Salter, for an example of a time when Obama did not “put the country first.”

His answer: the Senate maneuvering of immigration legislation.

In his view, Obama did big labor’s bidding by helping to kill the chances for a grand compromise on immigration reform.

“His campaign came before his country,” Salter told me in an e-mail.

In other words, if you weren’t for McCain’s deal, you didn’t put the country first.  

In York, McCain didn’t just wrap himself in the American flag — he wore it like a tight-fitting Olympic swimsuit.

And the folks in the stands loved every minute of it.

He also portrayed himself as the man who understands who our enemies are in the world — including a renascent Russian bear.

Obama, his aides said, was slow off the mark in his initial statements about the situation in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.

The cheering crowd not only loved McCain’s combativeness, but seemed almost glad to be facing a familiar old foe: the Russians.

All in all, it was a good event for McCain.

The crowd comprised a slice of America that McCain needs if he intends to win Pennsylvania and the election.

And that slice is: white (I did not spot a single African American in the crowd), rural, “exurban,” and mostly Protestant, with local roots stretching back centuries. 

They live in “The T” of Pennsylvania – which encompasses pretty much everything outside of the metropolitan areas of Philly and Pittsburgh.

It’s indubitably American.

But so, Obama will have to argue, is he.

He’s the up-by-the-bootstraps son of a wayward but brilliant immigrant father and an idealistic mom. He’s the kid who worked hard and took out loans to get an education at Columbia and Harvard. And he’s the candidate who loves his country for the chances it’s given him.

Who knows, that might even sell in York.