McCain Stakes His Turf

John McCain at a news conference in Savannah, Ga., this week.
John McCain at a news conference in Savannah, Ga., this week. (By Jeff Chiu -- Associated Press)
By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, May 22, 2008

When one of the Democratic Party's most astute strategists criticized John McCain this week for attacking Barack Obama's desire to engage Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, I asked what the Republican presidential candidate ought to talk about in this campaign. "Health care and the economy," he replied. That is a sure formula for a Democratic victory, but it is one that McCain's campaign rejects.

Obama embraced that formula once it became clear that he would best Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He began pounding McCain for offering the third term of George W. Bush. At the same time, Obama implores McCain in the interest of "one nation" and "one people" not to attack him. The shorthand, widely repeated by the media, is that the Republican candidate must not "Swift boat" Obama. That would amount to unilateral political disarmament by McCain.

McCain is not about to disarm. His campaign has no intention of fighting this battle on Democratic turf. During the more than five months until Election Day, Republicans will explore the mind-set of this young man who is a stranger to most Americans. That includes his association with the Chicago leftist William Ayers, who has remained unrepentant about his violent role as a 1960s radical. It will not be popular with McCain's erstwhile admirers in the mainstream media, but America will hear more about Ayers in this campaign.

Indicating what lies ahead is the McCain campaign's plan to bring in Tim Griffin, a protege of Karl Rove, who is a leading practitioner of opposition research -- the digging up of derogatory information about political opponents. Although final arrangements have not been pinned down, Griffin would work at the Republican National Committee, as he did during Bush's 2004 reelection campaign.

It is an article of Democratic faith that John Kerry would have been elected had Republicans not undermined public confidence in his leadership and integrity by assailing his performance as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam. McCain, idolized by much of the news media in 2000 as a potential Bush slayer, is now stigmatized as adopting not only his former intraparty adversary's policies but also his tactics.

Simultaneously, with Clinton no longer around to worry about, Obama deplores "the failed policies that John McCain wants to double down on." He has been relentless in pressing home that point. Last Saturday, in Roseburg, Ore.: "If you agree we've had a great foreign policy over the last four or eight years, then you should vote for John McCain. . . . [He] wants to give you the failed Bush health-care policy for another four years." On Monday, in Billings, Mont.: "John McCain has decided to run for George Bush's third term."

While on this attack, Obama also rails against any responsive fire from McCain. Obama has lashed out against criticism of his declared willingness to sit down with Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Ra¿l Castro. McCain strategists are infuriated by prestigious political reporters and commentators whom they see supporting Obama's position. Time columnist Joe Klein turned up in Savannah, Ga., on Monday for McCain's news conference, declaring that McCain had misrepresented Obama as proposing unconditional talks with the Iranian president. After asserting that "I've done some research" and "also checked with the Obama campaign," Klein said that Obama "never mentioned Ahmadinejad directly by name. He did say he would negotiate with the leaders."

In fact, Obama has repeatedly been questioned specifically about Ahmadinejad. At a news conference in New York last September, Obama was asked whether he would still meet with Ahmadinejad. He replied: "Yeah . . . I find many of President Ahmadinejad's statements odious. . . . But we should never fear to negotiate." On NBC's "Meet the Press" in November, he defended "a conversation with somebody like Ahmadinejad."

The debate over such a "conversation" was heightened by Bush's speech last week to Israel's Knesset in which he raised the prospect of "appeasement" by Obama. The White House has privately informed the McCain campaign it had no intention of leaping into presidential politics, but Obama's defensive response enabled him to again link McCain with Bush. Although the Republican candidate would like the unpopular president to get offstage politically, McCain is not about to run a campaign about health-care mandates and home foreclosures.

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