Is McCain Too Soft on Hillary?

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Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty

US Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Senator John McCain (R-AZ) at the National Prayer Breakfast, February 2007, in Washington, DC.

When John McCain speaks at a town hall, he makes a point of telling the audience that he's going to keep his opening remarks short. At an event in the packed town hall of New London, New Hampshire on Sunday, he explained he would be brief because he'd rather hear what voters have to say, "because that's the point of a town hall, not for me to stand up and talk and maybe answer a few planted questions."

The unusually genial crowd guffawed at the reference to reports that Hillary Clinton had arranged for an attendee at an event to ask her a softball question about climate change.

But that glancing blow was the hardest hit John McCain scored against the Democratic Presidential frontrunner that day. Later that evening, McCain unveiled a speech that staffers said would finally begin to "draw the distinctions"between McCain and Clinton, something that advisers had been encouraging for months. The speech did, in fact, draw distinctions, but it was also a rare example of a candidate announcing that he intended "this to be a respectful debate," and then keeping — at least on his own side — his word.

McCain's seeming reluctance to overtly engage in the kind of overwrought attacks on Clinton that have characterized the campaigns of the other front-runners first became apparent in early October. After McCain spontaneously discarded a prepared speech that was sharply critical of Clinton, pundits speculated that he had acted out of misplaced chivalry or affection for his Senate colleague; aides insisted that McCain simply didn't think that the venue — a military academy — and the audience — high school students — was the right place to engage in even a gentle discussion of the differences between the former POW and the former First Lady.

McCain's unwillingness to make the "anyone but Hillary" argument endangers one of the most substantial rationales he makes for his candidacy: the idea that he, alone among the Republicans, can beat Clinton in the general election. But McCain firmly believes he can accomplish that without engaging in the kind of politicking that was on display, say, between the Clinton and Barack Obama camps this past weekend.

Sunday night at Franklin Pierce University, the campaign said, was the right audience, the right place and the right time. As with most campaign speeches, it was primarily about the candidate. McCain spoke self-deprecatingly but firmly about his own accomplishments. He referred to his military experience and his legislative experience, and asserted that he can be a President who does not rely on "briefing books and power points." He did not go to Washington to be named "Mr. Congeniality," he said at the speech's closing, and he took pride in having made special interests, defense contractors and the Pentagon "angry...But I love America. I love her enough to make some people angry."

But not, it would seem, Senator Clinton. In discussing the New York Senator, McCain kept almost entirely to differences on specific policy points: withdrawal from Iraq, negotiating with Iran, taxes. Only once did he stray into the even vaguely personal; in reference to Clinton's dismissal of Gen. David Petraeus's Iraq testimony as requiring a "willing suspension of disbelief,"McCain said that she was allowing "the fringe of her party [to] pull her toward a position she knows is irresponsible."

It is temping to applaud McCain's restraint. Picking on Clinton — often in personal, even crude ways — has practically become an official Republican party plank. Rudy Giuliani regularly mocks Clinton's voice, and when Mitt Romney's campaign playbook was leaked to the crowd, it contained a proposal to link Clinton to the thing Americans used to hate more than anything: France.

In contrast, McCain's carefully calibrated assessment of their differences on Sunday was tuned to a frequency, perhaps, that only dogs and journalists can hear. After his speech, he took a question from a young voter who admitted that while he liked McCain, he also admired Giuliani's ability to be "tough" on Hillary Clinton and wondered if McCain could do the same. "I admire your respect for her," he said, "but do you really think you can be tough enough on her to win the general election?"

This is not an unrepresentative concern among Republicans. While McCain does beat Clinton — or come closer than anyone else — in many national polls, those same voters put McCain's actual chances of winning much lower than Clinton's.

Audiences respond to his proclamations to take the high road. "The American people want a respectful debate on the issues the American people want us to respect each others' views," he told the young man at Franklin Pierce University. "You should never degrade or ridicule anyone who's seeking public office." And the crowd went wild.

But it's also true that two of the campaign's most successful gambits have hinged upon implicit or explicit criticisms of Clinton: An e-mail solicitation prompted by CNN's coverage of the "beat the b**ch" episode, during which McCain played along with an overzealous questioner who used an obscenity to describe the former first lady, and his debate zinger that contrasted Clinton's earmark support for a Woodstock museum with his own experience in the Woodstock era — "I would have gone, but I was tied up at the time."

So while they may ask it with various degrees of politesse, Republican primary voters really do want to know how McCain plans on beating the presumptive Democratic nominee, and they're not sure "respectfully" will quite do it. McCain wants to live in a world in which it would; it's not clear that Hillary Clinton herself will join him.