Behind McCain's Blast at Bush

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Senator John McCain

John McCain has been President Bush's indispensable political ally on the war in Iraq. So what was the Arizona Senator and top-shelf 2008 presidential contender up to yesterday in Ohio when he unloaded on the Bush Administration's handling of the war in a speech that, with a few tweaks, could have been delivered by an anti-war Democrat? "I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required," McCain said. "Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders," he went on, citing some of the, ah, less-than-accurate assessments of the Iraq venture made over the years by the President, Vice President and secretary of defense. That kind of overly optimistic talk, McCain said, "has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking."

Several factors are at work here. First, McCain was speaking at a campaign event for fellow Senator Mike DeWine, who needs all the help he can get in his uphill re-election battle. DeWine is the perfect example of the kind of incumbent Republican who would win in a normal mid-term election year but will likely be swept away if anti-Bush, anti-GOP, anti-war sentiment turns voters towards Democrats this fall. Republicans are in trouble for a lot of reasons this year, but Iraq is the biggest. By criticizing Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld on Iraq, McCain was trying to help DeWine, who desperately needs to distance himself from an unpopular President and unpopular war.

But McCain had another, more personal agenda. His bid to transform himself from the insurgent challenger of the 2000 campaign into the establishment front-runner in the 2008 field has led him into some unlikely alliances — including the one formed by his peace-making visit earlier this year to see Jerry Fallwell at Liberty University. And it has led to charges, from Democrats and the camps of some presidential rivals, that McCain is sacrificing his straight-talk reputation for the support of big GOP donors and power-brokers.

McCain's aides know the Senator's reputation for independence and integrity is his most valuable political asset. They monitor its health closely. They knew that McCain's efforts to ingratiate himself with the party establishment would lead to stories suggesting the Senator had compromised his principles in order to appease conservatives. They counter those stories by citing the number of times McCain has opposed the President and what it has cost him politically with conservatives. But sometimes McCain himself has to do the reminding, as he did in Ohio. "John didn't say anything he hasn't said before — he's always been critical of the way the war's been handled even though he supports the war and thinks we have to win," an adviser told this morning. "But sometimes it's a good idea to remind people that he's still John McCain, telling it like it is. "