McCain Prepares to Define Iraq Policy Sen. John McCain of Arizona is about to deliver what is billed as a major policy speech on Iraq. His presidential campaign has experienced a number of setbacks, from less-than-stunning fundraising to low poll numbers.
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McCain Prepares to Define Iraq Policy

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McCain Prepares to Define Iraq Policy

McCain Prepares to Define Iraq Policy

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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Today, presidential candidate John McCain faces an issue that's brought him much criticism. It's his support for president Bush's strategy in Iraq. Senator McCain gives a speech on Iraq before an audience of cadets at Virginia Military Institute today. And this morning, we've reached Mark McKinnon. He was an adviser to President Bush who is now advising Senator McCain.

Mark, welcome to the program.

Mr. MARK MCKINNON (Adviser to Senator John McCain): Good morning, Steve. Been a long time.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Yeah. So a survey showed that most people oppose the war. And Senator McCain strongly supports it. What can he say today that people haven't heard before?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, I think he's going to reiterate what he's been saying all along, is that failure is just not an option. The war is hell on politics and it's hell on politicians, it's hell in the country. But Senator McCain wants to give the new strategy a chance to succeed, and we just don't believe - Senator McCain doesn't believe that leaving is an option right now. And he believes that this new strategy is an opportunity to establish security in the region, and that we've got to have that. It's simply failure is just not an option.

INSKEEP: But as someone who advises him on politics, what can he say that will get people to take a second look at that issue if so many people have made up their minds?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, it's not a popular position. I mean, this is not a political position for Senator McCain. As he has said, he'd rather lose the campaign than lose the war. So he realize that this is…

INSKEEP: Although - wait a minute. If you lose the politics, you do lose the war. How do you persuade people to stick with it?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, you win a nomination, first of all, of your party. And by winning the nomination, you show that there is support for that strategy. And McCain is a guy who's been to war. So I think that he's got great credibility, great authority to talk about these issues. And, you know, leaders have never been popular during times of conflicts. So Senator McCain understands that but knows that taking the politically popular position is not necessarily the right strategy.

INSKEEP: Is there an advantage in Republican primaries this time around to be seen as a strong supporter of President Bush on this issue?

Mr. MCKINNON: I don't know if it's an advantage or not, Steve. I just know that Senator McCain believes that this is the right choice and the only option. It's not a political strategy, it's a military strategy. That said, I do believe that most of the Republican primary voters are generally supportive of this approach.

INSKEEP: Let me talk a little more broadly here. You can think about storylines for different candidates, who they are, where they come from, which is the level that a lot of people are at this point in campaign. For Senator McCain, it was going to be that he was the inevitable frontrunner of the regular Republican, the guy who's in line who's turn it is. And suddenly here he is, he's behind in fundraising and some other measures as well. What happened?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, one thing that's very difficult do to in either primary, Steve, is to be the frontrunner. We're quite happy to have Rudolph Giuliani be the frontrunner, and John McCain is quite happy being where he is. The key is that, you know, this is like baseball or hockey or pick a sport. You want to peak in December or January, right when people are starting to focus in both in Iowa and New Hampshire. So there is going to be a lot of jockeying, a lot of physics that will happen between now and then.

The press, by the way, doesn't like a static story. So this is going to move around and - I guarantee you, they'll be the McCain comeback story at some point in the coming months.

INSKEEP: Well, how do you keep people interested in the candidate when they might feel they know everything about him, which I suspect a lot of candidates might have that problem because the campaign is so long this time around?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, it is so long, Steve, and that's why I think we're going to see some interesting things happen this time. For example, I think it's highly likely that we'll see somebody like Newt Gingrich get into this race late. And I think Gingrich is a very smart, savvy political player, and he understands there's going to be a lot of voter fatigue here. And the narrative that you all have is going to tire out your listeners and they're going to be tired of listening to Giuliani, McCain and Clinton and Obama. And come September, October, they might be wanting to hear about Al Gore and Newt Gingrich.

INSKEEP: Well, how does Senator McCain avoid that danger you just described, the fatigue?

Mr. MCKINNON: Well, the one thing that Senator McCain is more than anybody in this race is is a survivor. And that's what presidential elections are all about. It's who's going to be standing, you know, come January. And McCain's been through this drill before, and that's a huge asset. Having been through a presidential election and having that experience of knowing that you just got to batten down the hatches, not overreact when you have a tough couple of months or tough fundraising period. By the way, McCain has twice as many contributors as any other Republican candidate…

INSKEEP: Mark, got to stop you. Got to stop you. Mark McKinnon, adviser to John McCain, thanks very much.

Mr. MCKINNON: All right, Steve. Thanks.

INSKEEP: And Senator McCain speaks on Iraq today.

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