John McCain a Target for All Sides

The Associated Press
Thursday, January 4, 2007; 8:12 AM

WASHINGTON -- Everyone, it seems, is jabbing at John McCain these days _ from a Republican rival for the presidential nomination to several potential Democratic candidates.

"When you're the perceived front-runner, your head's above the political trench and everyone takes shots at you," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and presidential campaign veteran.

McCain, considered by many to be the Republican to beat, has largely remained silent about the criticism, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for the outspoken Arizona senator. His presidential exploratory committee on Wednesday declined to comment on the spate of reproaches over his stands on gay marriage and the Iraq war.

"He doesn't have to respond yet," said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant. "If I were advising McCain, I'd say wait until somebody makes a dent."

No doubt the assailing of McCain is only just beginning and he surely won't let the charges go unanswered indefinitely. The first primary contests are still a year away and the general election isn't until November 2008.

Still, attacking McCain, a political celebrity, this early allows lesser-known prospective candidates of all political stripes to raise their profiles and generate media coverage _ if even for one news cycle.

Republican critics, for their part, aim to chip away at McCain's credentials and raise questions about his positions to ensure he doesn't solidify his status as the one to beat.

Democratic foes, in the meantime, go after McCain in hopes of projecting strength and showing that they can take on the Republican heavyweight, particularly on the national security issues that are considered McCain's forte.

"I have to do what I believe is right and what I know is right," McCain told NBC's "Today Show" Thursday, acknowledging that his call for an increase in U.S. troops in Iraq could backfire politically. "If I pay a price for that and it's a misjudgment then that's a price I willingly pay."

On his right flank, the 2006 midterm campaign was barely over when a potential aspirant for the GOP presidential nomination, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, called McCain "disingenuous" on gay marriage. McCain has irked social conservatives with his opposition to a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He says the issue should be left to the states.

"I believe in the sanctity and unique role of marriage between man and woman, but I certainly don't believe in discriminating against any American," McCain said in November. He added: "I believe that gay marriage should not be legal."

Seeking to be seen as more conservative than McCain on issues dear to the right flank, Romney seized on the comments, saying: "That's his position, and in my opinion, it's disingenuous.

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