McCain Faces Challenges on Path to White House

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) is buckling down for his 2008 presidential campaign. But McCain has a daunting road ahead, according to John Dickerson, chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate. Madeleine Brand talks to Dickerson about the challenges facing McCain's presidential bid.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Let's say you're a politician who likes to say what he thinks, someone who, say, nicknames his presidential campaign bus, The Straight Talk Express. Let's say you're running for president again.

Well in this new YouTube era, you might want to rethink your straight-shooting ways. John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. And John's here with some words of advice for John McCain as he launches his campaign for the White House. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Hello.

BRAND: Well you've written a column outlining five big challenges for McCain in 2008. And we'll get to the YouTube factor in a moment. But, McCain has hired campaign advisors, he's hired staff. And I'm wondering are they the same people from 2000? Do they need to do things differently this time around?

Mr. DICKERSON: The core group is the same people from 2000. None of them really have stopped the campaign in a lot of ways. But they will be bringing on lots of new advisors, all of the things that you need when you're a front-runner. And that's essentially what McCain is.

And that's a very different thing than being an insurgent rough and tumble campaigner that he was in 2000.

BRAND: So, he's got to be more measured. He's got to have well thought out positions on policy and that kind of thing.

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. He's got to - McCain has to strike a balance. And that is between the insurgent, guy who speaks whatever's on his mind, with somebody who's trying to look presidential and carrying the load of this front-runner campaign, which means a huge policy shop, lots more people telling him how to calibrate his message, particularly to meet a certain audience.

And what happens in a campaign is that all of those things, all of that advice, tends to strip away your authenticity. Well the McCain brand is sold on authenticity as its main component. So, he'll have to get that mix right.

BRAND: What about his fabled anger issues?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, the question of McCain's anger is always an interesting one. There, actually, aren't as many stories of his anger as there are about other politicians, say, Bill Clinton for example.

But, it has been part of the McCain whispering campaign from opponents over the years. And so now in an era where everything you say is captured on video camera somewhere, for McCain this is the challenge.

Given that stereotype that's out there he can't be caught flying off the handle where as he has something that other politicians don't have, which is he has a little more running room. In other words, he can say something that might be a little abrasive or tart and because he's John McCain and authentic, he has a little running room.

But, he still has to watch out for the anger thing.

BRAND: Because it could end up on YouTube?

Mr. DICKERSON: That's right. Being angry is fine but anything that gets captured on film and gets played over and over again on YouTube - that could be a problem.

BRAND: OK, what about Iraq? McCain has taken the politically unpopular stance of calling for more troops to be sent there. That's not what most voters want, clearly. So, will he have to readjust that position?

Mr. DICKERSON: McCain has benefited from being able to do two things: One, is support the Iraq war and therefore fund Republicans who approve of his position in that regard, but he's also been highly critical of the secretary - the former Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld.

And he's gotten in trouble now, because he's pushing this notion of more troops. And, that's certainly against public opinion. But, what potentially saves him is he's been calling for more troops - and that was the center of his criticism of Rumsfeld.

He's been calling for troops for so long, he's now being validated by field generals who are saying, you know, we could have used more troops. So, McCain can say he was right all along and any effort to bring in troops now, he could argue, is too little, too late.

BRAND: And then he could also blame the Democrats who will be in power when he's running for president.

Mr. DICKERSON: It's potentially true. It's unclear how much the Democratic foil helps McCain because McCain is running as two things. He's running as the real conservative but he's also running as this kind of middle-of-the-road consensus builder.

So, the old knee-jerk attack of Democrats that some Republicans might like to see will hurt McCain with that constituency that believes he's the kind of independent, middle-of-the-road kind of guy who can work with Democrats.

BRAND: And as we saw with the last election candidates who win need independent voters.

Mr. DICKERSON: And McCain needs independent voters like nobody else. They are his core supporters. And they are the ones who will be the ones watching most closely to see if he remains the authentic John McCain or whether he becomes some new kind of animal now that he's the Republican front-runner.

BRAND: John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for the online magazine, Slate. Thanks, John.

Mr. DICKERSON: Thank you.

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