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Experience issue makes comeback for McCain

The recent worsening of the country's economic crisis has forced to put his new message of "change" and "reform" on the back burner.

After several weeks spent railing against the "good old boys network" and the "Washington crowd" in trying to position the nominee and running mate Sarah Palin as a "team of mavericks," the McCain camp spent the beginning of this week touting the Arizona Republican's credentials as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.

During an off-camera briefing with reporters Tuesday morning, the campaign's senior policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, was asked what kind of skills McCain had that made him especially qualified to handle the current economic crisis.

"You have to have the ability to look and identify a crisis, call it a crisis, not pretend that it's fine and let it go on," Holtz-Eakin said. "We've seen, for example, Freddie and Fannie go on for years. No one's bothered to stop it. So call it what it is -- straight talk. Secondly, you want to take your experiences on the Commerce Committee, apply it to the problem, and also consult with great people."

The themes of experience and leadership were key McCain talking points during the primaries as he sought to reassure voters who were concerned about his knowledge of economic issues. That strategy is re-emerging today as the economy gains additional urgency for the middle-class, blue-collar voters both McCain and are courting.

McCain's experience on the Commerce Committee and involvement in financial issues in the Senate were central to his argument against Mitt Romney, a former governor and businessman whom McCain called a "manager," not a "leader."

"I've been involved with many, many aspects of America's economy for a number of years, serving on the Commerce Committee and as chairman," McCain told reporters the day after a debate in Florida leading up to that state's primary. "We made policies concerning prohibition of taxes on the Internet, telecommunication reforms and aviation -- literally, every part of America's economy. And I have led and not managed."

In the many months between the conclusion of the Republican primary campaign and the conclusion of the prolonged Democratic campaign, McCain co-opted Hillary Rodham Clinton's experience argument to appeal to her supporters as the rift between Clinton and Obama grew deeper.

"If it were not for the lessons of the past that I've learned, I don't think that I would have nearly the insight that I have as to how [the] future should be shaped," McCain said at a press conference in March. "Whether it be on the economy and all my many years of chairmanship and involvement on the Commerce Committee addressing all of the economic issues that affect this nation -- far more than Senator Obama or Senator Clinton were ever involved -- or whether it be on the national security side, because I remember the lessons of a failed conflict."

As recently as last month, less than three weeks before Palin's unveiling as the second half of the GOP ticket, Joe Lieberman introduced McCain at a town hall event in York, Pa., by emphasizing his friend's experience.

"In my opinion, the choice could not be more clear, between one candidate, John McCain, who's had experience, been tested in war and tried in peace, [and] another candidate who has not," Lieberman said.


Sarah Palin

View images of her rise from governor of Alaska to a potential presidential contender.

But the Palin pick made doubling down on the experience issue a bit more difficult. At last month's Republican convention and in the weeks since, the message coming out of the McCain campaign and its surrogates has been "reform."

"Let me offer a little advance warning to the old big-spending, do-nothing, me-first, country-second Washington crowd: Change is coming," McCain told a crowd in Sterling Heights, Mich., earlier this month.

In Cedarburg, Wis., McCain emphasized Palin's small-town roots and promised change for all of America: "We're going to go across the small towns of America, and we're going to give them hope and we're going to give them confidence and we will bring about change in Washington, D.C. And we will not talk about it, but we'll do something about it."

McCain's experience may once again prove itself politically expedient. The question is whether McCain and Palin can highlight his "old-boy" experience in the Senate and still maintain the credibility of their promise for reform.