Is McCain Fighting a Losing Battle?

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Carlos Barria / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate John McCain talks to supporters during a town hall meeting at West Palm Beach, Florida, January 24, 2008.

Could John McCain's focus on Iraq turn out to be his undoing after all?

The Arizona Senator latched his political fortunes to the war last spring, and for much of the past couple of months, his bet has looked pretty shrewd. Out on the campaign trail, he has never missed an opportunity to tout the definite, if modest, improvement in Iraq and his role in pushing for the surge. But now, as McCain battles Mitt Romney to become the G.O.P. front-runner, it seems possible that the maverick Senator could be a victim of his own success. With Iraq overtaken by the flagging economy as voters' number one concern, McCain has not been able to turn his South Carolina victory of a week ago into a solid lead in the Florida polls, and Romney suddenly looks like a much more formidable rival for the nomination.

As Romney keeps reminding voters about his background as a consultant who knows the ins and outs of creating jobs, McCain seems to be trying perhaps a bit too hard to shift the debate back to his strong suit, national security and Iraq. On Saturday, he criticized Romney for allegedly supporting a timetable for a phased withdrawal. The ambiguous Romney quote from last April that McCain relied on for this assertion came under excruciating examination, and soon enough McCain's usual allies in the news media were calling him out. Romney went one step further, calling his opponent a liar before dialing back the increasingly heated rhetoric.

For a candidate who has based much of his appeal as a straight-talking, different kind of politician, the spat over his honesty couldn't have come at a worse time. While McCain succeeded in bringing Iraq to the fore, the flare-up between the two threatens to undo the relatively positive round of coverage that followed high-profile endorsements from Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez.

The Iraq withdrawal contretemps, it turned out, was just the start of a nasty last few days of campaigning. The two traded especially pointed barbs Monday, with Romney trying to capitalize on McCain's historic willingness to work with Democrats and an alleged McCain quote—that he has since denied—that he would not appoint judges in the mold of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. This last allegation sparked especially sharp words from the McCain staff. Senior advisor Steve Schmidt, pushing back against Romney's insinuation that McCain is not a "real" Republican, told reporters about his effort, at the 2004 Democratic convention, to have prominent Republicans be available to refute Democrats' attacks on George Bush and attack John Kerry. Many came to Boston, including Rudy Giuliani, but, says Schmidt, "Mitt Romney refused. He refused to utter one critical word about John Kerry."

At certain times, McCain seems to dwell too much on war and Islamic extremism, which he calls the "transcendent challenge of the 21st century." Just as he hurt his chances in Michigan by leveling with voters that old-line jobs in the dying auto industry weren't coming back, he risks alienating Republicans in the Sunshine State with his particularly bleak view of the future. "It's a tough war we're in. It's not going to be over right away. There's going to be other wars," he told supporters on Sunday, without elaborting. "And right now—we're gonna have a lot of PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] to treat, my friends...We're gonna have a lot of combat wounds that have to do with these terrible explosive IEDs that inflict such severe wounds."

But as much as he tries to shift the conversation back to Iraq and the war on terror, McCain can't avoid the fact that most Floridians' pressing concern is their pocketbooks. The state's housing industry has slumped precipitously in the past year. And while the state's economy is still relatively strong, this decline in its most important economic sector has focused the attention of many Florida Republicans on the solutions candidates have to offer. In SurveyUSA's most recent poll, Romney leads by 17 points among those whose most important issue is the economy. (McCain "leads by 14 points among voters focused on terrorism and by 22 points among voters focused on Iraq.") Much as in the Michigan primary, where Romney beat McCain with a message of beguiling economic optimism, business experience and native son sentimentality, Romney is now taking every opportunity to remind voters, "No one needs to give me a briefing on the economy." (The swipe at McCain is an inversion of a Romney line that McCain has featured in an anti-Romney ad: "Well, if we want somebody who has a lot of experience in foreign policy, we can simply go to the State Department.")

To combat the impression—helped along by his own past statements—that economic policy is not his "strong suit," McCain cites his experience on the Senate Commerce Committee, or touts endorsements by such conservative financial policy heavyweights as former Senator Phil Gramm. Against these two discreet points, Romney has unleashed a daily barrage of statements, photo ops, and examples that underscore the allegation that not only is McCain inexperienced when it comes to the economy, the policies he does endorse are wrong-headed and, worst of all, not conservative. This morning saw a 6:00 AM press conference in which the governor railed against the "climate stewardship" legislation sponsored by McCain and Sen. Joe Lieberman (who is stumping for his old friend here). Romney called it "an expensive bill for the people of Florida" whose effect on the environment would be "symbolic." (The McCain campaign points out that as governor, Romney touted a similar, regional approach to greenhouse gases as "good for business.")

McCain's best hope to defang Romney's powerful message of financial expertise may not lie in attempts to paint Romney as a flip-flopper, or in pumping up his own somewhat circumscribed policy background. Rather, some aides argue that Romney's private sector resume is, in itself, a handicap. McCain finance committee member John Lehman, a former investment banker and Secretary of the Navy, says that entrepreneurial experience is simply not transferable to the government sector. "It's so much more fun to run a company. You say, 'do something,' it gets done. You have the leverage of salary, of firing people," says Lehman. "A CEO takes a long time to adjust to government. They're used to a command situation."

One adviser puts it more starkly: "We don't have the time to go through what we went through with Bush. He couldn't see 9/11 coming because he didn't have the sensitivity for the kind of information he was getting."

McCain's own view on the contest of resumes is typically stubborn, even righteous. "Even if the economy is the quote 'number one issue,' the real issue will remain America's security," he told reporters yesterday. "And if [voters] choose to say, look, I do not need this guy because he's not as good on home loan mortgages or whatever . I understand that. I will accept that verdict."