MIKE PESCA, host:
He spent years inside a Vietnamese prison, he fought his way back from a Congressional scandal, seethed over what he saw were personal smears derailing his 2000 presidential bid. All the while, John McCain pushed forward. He is fond of quoting Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena," because McCain never removed himself from the arena.
He's always been crafting legislation, criticizing the conduct of a war he always wanted, at times, taking so-called friendly fire from fellow Republicans. John McCain will be the Republican presidential nominee, and he has many strategic and tactical choices to make. Here to discuss them is Jonathan Martin, senior political correspondent at politico.com. Hello, Jonathan.
Mr. JONATHAN MARTIN (Senior Political Correspondent, Politico.com): Hey. How are you?
PESCA: Well. First, how do McCain and his team feel about Barack Obama as an opponent? Would they rather run against Hillary Clinton?
Mr. MARTIN: They have - for either reasons of trying to convince themselves that he is the easier candidate or just a real legitimate - view comfortably that McCain shapes up better against Obama than Clinton. Now, I'm not sure how much this is a spin versus justification against their eventual opponent. But they think this, the contract between McCain's experience, especially on national security issues, against Obama will be a key factor for voters.
The fact, in time of peril, at home and abroad, McCain has long experience working with regard to military issues, foreign policy issues. Obama simply doesn't have that kind of experience, and the McCain folks will press that, especially when it comes to Obama's willingness to sit down with the country's enemies. Anyhow, the McCain folks will try and present that as a sort of form of foreign policy naivete. So, they think that a McCain-Obama match-up provides them with some real opportunities.
PESCA: Let's talk about money. McCain has been trailing. He took in about 18 million dollars in April. That's compared to Obama's 31-million-dollar haul. OK, Obama is still in a race so, that explains why he's raising more money. But will the money be there for McCain when he needs it?
Mr. MARTIN: No. I mean, the short answer is, no, McCain is never going to raise what Obama brings in. The McCain folks have reconciled themselves to that. Their hope-slash-spin is this, that between the (unintelligible) the McCain campaign, they will be sufficiently endowed to run a competitive and perhaps successful race this November. And they want the metric to be used of, RNC and McCain versus DNC and Obama. Now, why is that? Well, because the RNC happens to be far more flush than their Democratic counterpart. So, the Republicans you talk to say, look, Obama is going to be a rock star when it comes to raising cash, but we're going to have enough money to compete.
Here's the problem for Republicans, though. When you get down to the final weeks, or even final days, and these candidates and campaigns are making decisions about where to put resources, Obama has a huge pile of money. It gives him a degree of flexibility to play in some states that perhaps McCain can't. And he also may be able to put McCain on defense in some states by putting money somewhere. Or perhaps they can't win, they can sort of threaten, and try and get in McCain's head a little bit.
PESCA: Also, when you have the money, and you make a mistake, you say it's all right, we have some money backing it up. When you don't have the money and make a mistake, it causes so much stress on the campaign. OK. So, who's McCain's Rove?
Mr. MARTIN: Well, that's a great question. McCain doesn't really have a Karl Rove. The closest person to that roll is a fellow named John Weaver, who was his top strategist, who was ousted last summer as part of a campaign shake-up. But right now, he's got a tight-knit inner circle of advisors. His campaign manager is a fellow named Rick Davis, and McCain's closest personal aide is a guy named Mark Salter, but there's no real Svengali there.
And frankly, this is not the Bush campaign. Folks in the Republican Party are so used to this top-down, metric based, very precise, military-discipline Bush model, it's just not there. McCain is much more somebody who relies upon a sort of loose organization. People have input, it is not strictly top-down, and there's no one person there pulling the strings. There's about half a dozen people that he's close to, they are shrewd political operatives, but there is not a Rove this time around.
PESCA: The question about who the Rove is, is interesting not just because of the structure of the campaign, which reflects somewhat maybe his management style. But also, Rove brought a big idea to the election, and Rove's big idea, among his big ideas, was go and get out the base. We in politics are often too distracted by trying to sway the people in the middle. What you have to do is inspire your base. Does McCain believe that? Is it going to be big, mostly inspire the base at the expense of the undecided?
Mr. MARTIN: No. The McCain view, and frankly, the Republican view, this is not going to be a base election, because of the problems with the GOP brand. Also, because of McCain's strengths with some Independent voters, they recognize that he needs to go out and pick up Independents, perhaps even some of those Reagan Democrats, and to try and bring back them into the fold, those disillusioned Republicans who have sort of wavered here in the Bush years. So, that's going to be their goal, to try and really go after those folks in the middle, and not so much picking up folks on the right. Put it in math terms, they want to play the politics of addition, not multiplication of their own.
PESCA: So, when you talk about the weakness of the Republicans, this is sort of the atmosphere in the background. And we know there are a lot of weaknesses for a Republican, any generic Republican, and they're sort of external weaknesses. Also, the economy is a weakness for the Republican, and the war is a weakness for the Republican. What I want to ask you is the McCain team, what do they think is his biggest, personal and specific to McCain, his biggest, personal deficit? Is it his temper, his age, his blunt speaking style, something else?
Mr. MARTIN: I think it is a couple of things. First, it's the R after his last name. Look, John McCain is a well-known figure in this country, does have something of Independent niche outside of the party, but he's still a Republican, he still supported Bush in a lot of major issues, and he can still be defined as a conservative, Bush-supporting Republican. And the Democrats will emphatically try and do that, painting this as running for a third Bush term. That is his chief obstacle in a terrible year for Republicans.
Beyond that no question, his age is going to be a (unintelligible). He'll be 72 years old this August. He'll become the oldest president-elect in the history of the country were he to win in November. That's going to be a big challenge. And then lastly, I will just say, his being a long time Washington figure, he's been in the Congress, in the House and Senate, now for a combined 25 years. He came in in the class of '82 to the House. So very easy for Obama, running on a change mantra, to paint McCain as part of a Washington status quo.
PESCA: I would think that, McCain, all the negatives about him can be spun, and plausibly perhaps, into positives. Like his temper...
Mr. MARTIN: Oh, absolutely.
PESCA: His temper is the negative. The positive is people like fire in the belly. His age is the negative. His positive is experience, you know?
Mr. MARTIN: That's exactly my right. The McCain folks have already started doing that, and when it comes to the Washington experience, by the way, yes, he's been in D.C. for a long time, but you know what? He has brought change. He's worked across party lines. He has really tried to, you know embrace the sort of new politics that Obama talks about quite a bit, but hasn't necessarily gotten the results from.
Their pitch against Obama, beyond being naive when it comes to foreign policy, their sort of second-tier assault against them is going to be look, this guy talks a great game, he's a good speaker when it comes to embracing this new brand of politics, but McCain has walked the walk. Whether it's campaign finance, or climate change or especially the immigration issue, he has, you know, taken on his own party, and walked across the aisle to try and get things done.
PESCA: Last question. This isn't a national election, of course. It's 50 state elections, 51, if you include D.C., which probably already went Democrat. So, I would like you to pick a state, maybe pick a region, tell me something about how the McCain team is going to try and win that state or region.
Mr. MARTIN: Sure, they are looking, I think, at two places that I think could play to McCain's strengths, and Obama's vulnerabilities. First of all the industrial Mid West, you start at Pennsylvania and move west to Ohio, you reach down you grab West Virginia, and certainly you include Michigan in there as well, a home of the Reagan Democrat, a place where Obama could have real vulnerabilities, when it comes to white, working-class voters.
The McCain folks think they can keep their base intact and reach over and grab some those shot-and-a-beer kind of white guys. Secondly, the Pacific Northwest, they believe that McCain's unique brand, the fact that he's more independent than Bush could make them competitive in a place like Washington or Oregon. They really wouldn't want to impress the environmental issue out there, in those two places.
PESCA: Yeah. If there are enough Scoop Jackson and supporters still around in Washington, yeah.
Mr. MARTIN: Probably it's a longer shot out there than it is in places like Ohio and Michigan. That's probably their better bet, but those two places, I think, do go to this issue about McCain's advantages and some of Obama's weaknesses.
PESCA: All right, great job. Jonathan Martin, senior political correspondent at Politico. Thanks, Jonathan.
Mr. MARTIN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.