McCain VMI Speech Aimed at Boosting Campaign

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) visited the Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday to give a speech on the Iraq war. As he faces weak fundraising and poll numbers, the one-time Republican presidential front-runner is looking for ways to revitalize his candidacy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

John McCain, yesterday, paid a visit to the Virginia Military Institute to make a speech about Iraq intended to help revive his flagging campaign. All three leading Republican presidential candidates support the president's new counterinsurgency strategy. But more than others McCain has staked his political future on its success.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: It's a risky strategy for the candidate who was once the frontrunner in the Republican field, but who's now facing declining poll numbers, lackluster fundraising, and campaign staff layoffs. But John McCain argued for years that even more troops were needed to implement the kind of counterinsurgency the president is trying in Baghdad. And he said he wasn't going to back away now.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Having been a critic of the way this war was fought and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed.

LIASSON: McCain painted a dire picture of what would happen if the U.S. left too soon. He said Iraq would become a wild west for terrorists like Afghanistan before 9/11: the Iraqi government could collapse, an all-out civil war could spill beyond Iraq's borders, sparking a genocide that would rival Rwanda's. McCain was critical of Democrats who favor setting a deadline for withdrawing troops. He said they were following a cynical strategy that accepts defeat with no responsibility for the consequences.

Sen. MCCAIN: We who are willing to support this new strategy have chosen a hard road, but it is the right road. Democrats who deny our soldiers the means to prevent an American defeat have chosen another road. It may appear to be the easier course of action but it is a much more reckless one.

LIASSON: As McCain has acknowledged, he disagrees with the majority of Americans who tell public opinion pollsters they see Iraq as a hopeless cause.

Mr. DAVID WINSTON (Republican Strategist): He's clearly going to that direction because that's what he believes in.

LIASSON: That's Republican strategist David Winston, who, like others, thinks Iraq could be a big problem for McCain in a general election. But, Winston says, McCain's position on Iraq might actually help him in the Republican primaries.

Mr. WINSTON: Remember, again, within the Republican Party, there is a lot more support for this particular course of action than the electorate as a whole. I think that's why you saw him go to Iraq and take a CBS crew with him for "60 Minutes," because to some degree this sort of defines his sense of what's right and wrong and showing his stand on principle.

LIASSON: Winston says Iraq is just a part of a larger problem for McCain, who has said he sometimes wonders if it's possible to catch lightning in a bottle twice.

Mr. WINSTON: And he hasn't managed to take that sort of excitement and that sort of independence that you generated in 2000 and translate it to the 2008 campaign. And he's struggling as a result of that.

LIASSON: After McCain's speech at VMI, he held a conference call with the group of conservative bloggers, the kind of conservatives McCain has been having trouble winning over. Several of them commended him for his bluntness and candor about the war. In a press conference after the speech yesterday, McCain insisted that political considerations played no role at all in his approach to Iraq.

Sen. MCCAIN: I believe that many Democrats view this as a political opportunity and many Republicans view it as a political burden. I think it should be neither. I think we should be most concerned about the future of this nation as relates to failure or success in Iraq.

LIASSON: McCain says over and over that he'd rather lose a campaign than lose a war, but he still wants to win the campaign, and the war isn't McCain's only hurdle. After a lackluster fundraising report earlier this month, his campaign is bracing for the release of detailed spending reports that could show him with little cash on hand. Yesterday, the campaign announced it would layoff some staff in an effort to save money.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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John McCain: The Maverick Who Fell from Grace

Watching a romance crash and burn is always sad, and sometimes a bit shocking. Both parties are often guilty of excess in their disillusionment, just as they once went too far in the other direction.

So it has been with the affair between Sen. John McCain and the news media. How bitter to see them unloading on each other like estranged spouses in court.

McCain now says the media are out of date, misinformed and perversely determined to see Iraq as lost. At times, he snarls at cameras and mikes through clenched teeth, as though channeling Spiro Agnew through Dick Cheney.

The fourth estate, responding to the slap, rips McCain for wooing the likes of Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush. Gone is the deference — yea, reverence — once shown to his toughness and ex-POW cred. This week, we saw one-time McCain enthusiasts compare the sight of him striding the streets of Baghdad (with 100 armed Marines, and choppers overhead) to that of Mike Dukakis as a helmet-wearing bobblehead in a tank.

That kind of wound rarely heals — and more often makes divorce lawyers rich.

Need we review McCain's pas de deux with the punditocracy in 2000? As a primary candidate that year, he was an even dearer media darling than Paul Tsongas in 1992, Bruce Babbitt in 1988 or Mo Udall in 1976 — the loved ones of earlier cycles.

Seven years ago, seasoned campaign hands from big national news organs vied to ride shotgun on McCain's Straight Talk Express. They laughed aloud at his jokes and marveled at his flinty-eyed vision. In an era when candidates all seemed the products of consultants, more celluloid than human, John McCain seemed to be a sudden resurgence of the real.

No wonder he once referred to the press, half in jest, as "my base."

Some say McCain's rapid rise in reporters' esteem began in 1996, when he emerged as a major advocate for Bob Dole's presidential campaign. At that year's national GOP convention in San Diego, McCain was a polo-shirted fixture in the media hotel lobby, holding court at all hours. Gaggles of reporters stood around him, most not even taking notes. It was all about Dole, sure — but McCain was also dazzling on a personal level, an ocean-breeze-bearing candor and self-deprecating wit.

Oddly enough, the Arizona senator previously had been known primarily for unfortunate associations. He had briefly been chairman of Phil Gramm's ill-starred presidential campaign. Before that, he had been tarred by Charles Keating, a disgraced financier of the 1980s who spread a lot of money around on Capitol Hill when the savings and loan industry was collapsing.

McCain not only survived the Keating mess but took from it a new inspiration: cleaning up campaign finance. That mission would become the horse McCain rode to the higher elevations of national note (and intra-party controversy).

In the 2000 race, of course, McCain survived only to the middle primaries. The insistence on speaking his mind that charmed the press left many party stalwarts and social conservatives cold. Besides, the establishment had already aligned behind the governor of Texas.

McCain learned how much that meant after he won New Hampshire — and watched that triumph recede into irrelevance. Next time around, McCain vowed, the powers that be would line up behind him.

And they might have done so, had George W. Bush been denied the presidency in 2000. Four years of Al Gore in the White House might well have set the stage for McCain in 2004. McCain might also have been the obvious heir apparent had Mr. Bush been defeated in 2004.

But instead, this second Bush presidency is having a second term. And that term has, to date, featured an almost unbroken sequence of political disasters. So instead of inheriting the pole position, McCain is heir to the Bush legacy, with all its reversals and disappointments — above all, the miasma of Iraq.

He has given up his brand as a maverick, the brand that won all those plaudits in 2000, in hopes of gaining instead the aura of inevitability. Alas, for him, that sacrifice has not been redeemed.

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