Marketing McCain(TM)

By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 12, 2008

Republican Sen. John McCain is a champion of an unpopular war, he is trying to succeed an unpopular GOP president, and he is a member of an increasingly unpopular party in a year when the historic race of his rivals has caused hundreds of thousands of voters to register as Democrats.

Yet McCain has been steadily gaining in national polls against Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and he holds a lead in many of the swing states that are likely to determine who wins the presidency.

McCain's advisers attribute this seeming contradiction to what they believe is McCain™, a political brand that for over a decade has stood for strength, experience, straight talk and independence, qualities they believe help buffer him from many of the ills of his party. The attacks from conservatives that McCain withstood during the Republican primaries served to enhance his brand and bolster his position among moderates and independents, who are critical to winning in November, they contend.

"John McCain has an identity that's well established with the American people," said Steve Schmidt, one of his top political strategists. "He's a person who stands up and fights for what he believes in. It's appealing to independents. It's appealing to conservative Democrats. It's appealing to Republicans."

The campaign's general-election strategy is to sell the McCain brand to show voters that he is distinct from President Bush and other Republicans: His patented town hall meetings will showcase his "straight talk" with voters. His frequent conversations with reporters will highlight his openness and risk-taking. His ads and speeches will tout experience and strength of character.

McCain plans to visit Appalachia and the barrios of Los Angeles in an attempt to burnish his moderate credentials and reinforce the perception that he is willing to reach out broadly. A trip to Europe and the Middle East last month was seen as an effort to remind voters of his reputation for foreign policy expertise, and a biographical tour this month was designed to showcase his patriotism.

Democrats do not dispute that McCain has built a brand; however, they think it's a false one -- the "McCain myth," they call it. Their hope, according to interviews with top Democratic officials, is to chip away at the McCain brand, much as a company might methodically pick at a competitor's product.

Democrats say recent polling and focus groups suggest that McCain's reputation is less solid than his aides believe, especially when it comes to his position on the Iraq war and his image as a moderate politician who is willing to buck his party on key issues.

Since McCain became the presumptive nominee a month ago, Democrats have criticized two campaign loans as evidence that he is not the champion of good government he claims to be. They have noted the prevalence of lobbyists in his campaign. They have repeatedly sought to tie him to Bush to show that he's no maverick. And they seized on a gaffe he made about Iran to argue that he is not as experienced as he claims.

Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Karen Finney said: "For a lot of people, they used to like the brand of the maverick. But that's not who he is anymore. Our job is showing people that's not the guy he is."

Hayes Roth, the chief marketing officer at Landor, a firm responsible for burnishing the BP, FedEx and Coors brands, among others, said that "it's not what the other campaigns come up with to assail John McCain. It's how he reacts to them that will make the difference."

The selling of McCain is rooted in one of the oldest theories of product marketing: that a successful brand identity, once established in the American psyche, is virtually impossible to blunt or damage.

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