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.
A pair of market research firms in South Carolina polled voters there in April and September and concluded that if McCain's brand were a product, it would be part Ford pickup, part Wrangler jeans and part Timex watch.
"His brand strengths were identified as: trustworthiness, looks presidential, prepared for the job, has relevant experience," said Mark Newsome, a senior vice president at Chernoff Newman, which conducted the surveys with MarketSearch. "He's really resting his laurels on his own brand."
But the firms also concluded that McCain's brand has weaknesses: a striking lack of warmth and personal charm. And Democrats insist that there are opportunities to attack the building blocks of the McCain brand, especially his assertion that he is a moderate.
In a recent poll of women in battleground states by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, about 23 percent incorrectly believed that McCain supports abortion rights, compared with 18 percent who understood that he is an opponent. More than half said they did not know where he stands on the issue. Setting the record straight could weaken his hold on some voters, Democrats said.
"There is this reputation of independence that gets conflated with an expectation of moderation," said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin of Hart Research Associates, who conducted the poll for the abortion rights group. "But what we have found is people can be turned around on that with a very few facts."
Last month Democrats pounced on McCain's gaffe about Iranian support for al-Qaeda. In interviews, McCain was angry and dismissive, saying he merely misspoke, while his aides sought to argue that his comments were accurate. The Democrats spent days contrasting the mistake with McCain's claims of experience.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean recently called McCain a "blatant opportunist" on Iraq and the economy, prompting an angry response from Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, who accused Dean of making "reckless statements attacking John McCain's character and integrity."
Schmidt calls the attacks from Democrats "not very worrisome" because McCain has been seen as standing up to his party and fighting on issues -- the war in Iraq and immigration -- that have damaged him politically.
Independent polling data suggest Schmidt may be right. McCain's favorability, especially among independents, remains far higher than that of Bush or congressional Republicans, suggesting that voters view him differently -- at least for now. Republican support for McCain is stronger than Democratic support for his rivals.
But other surveys present some concerns for McCain. In a recent Gallup poll on presidential weaknesses, 40 percent of voters said they "least wanted" McCain to be elected. Of those, most cited his position on Iraq and his similarity to Bush.
Democrats offer their own polls, which show that 59 percent of voters know "just some" or "very little" about McCain's record on issues.
Even Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is supporting McCain for president, worries that voters have "an incomplete picture of John," saying, "They think of him as a war hero, and perhaps they identify him with the Iraq war." He said that part of his own job on the campaign trail is to tell Americans how McCain has pushed for reform on Capitol Hill.
"I think they sense that he's principled and independent," Lieberman said, "but I don't think they know all the details of what it's taken him to do."