McCain Emphasizes Distance From Bush

Sen. John McCain meets with local business leaders at Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q in Columbia, Mo.
Sen. John McCain meets with local business leaders at Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q in Columbia, Mo. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Abramowitz and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

BELTON, Mo., Oct. 20 -- Battling George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, John McCain lashed out at the Texas governor, denouncing his proposed tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich.

Eight years later, this time running as the Republican presidential nominee, the senator from Arizona is again criticizing Bush and his financial policies, as he renews his efforts to demonstrate that he would represent a departure from the current administration.

At virtually every campaign stop, McCain is reprising a line he used last Wednesday in his final debate with Sen. Barack Obama: "I am not George Bush." And in a television ad introduced last week, McCain looks into the camera and says, "The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they?"

As he struggles to pull his campaign out from beneath the shadow of a president whose approval ratings have reached historic lows, McCain is offering some of his toughest criticism of the Bush White House. In recent weeks, he has focused his message on the administration's handling of the nation's financial crisis, suggesting that the Treasury Department has been more interested in "bailing out the banks" than helping struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

"I am so disturbed that this administration has not done what we have to do, and that is to go out and buy up these bad mortgages," McCain told Jewish leaders in a conference call Sunday morning.

The new rhetoric has drawn roars of applause at some campaign stops and represents a tacit acknowledgment that McCain has not distanced himself sufficiently from the administration in his bid. One senior adviser said the campaign had to do something to counteract the Obama operation's decision to spend "tens of millions of dollars pushing" the idea that McCain is a virtual clone of Bush. "The majority of the swing voters don't believe it, but some do, and we have to convince them that we are different from Bush," said this adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss campaign strategy.

Bush is hardly the only problem for McCain as he struggles to close a gap with Obama. Voters perceive Obama as better prepared to handle the economic crisis, the GOP brand has been severely tarnished in recent years, and McCain is at a huge financial disadvantage.

But with the Republican president's approval ratings languishing, the perceived connection with him is a significant drag on the party's nominee. Nearly half of all voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said McCain would mainly carry on Bush's policies, and among those who would consider a McCain presidency as a continuation of the current administration, 90 percent support Obama. And the prized independent voters who link McCain and Bush also overwhelmingly tilt toward the Democrat.

McCain has made progress in distancing himself from the president. Among independents, 54 percent now see the senator as offering a new direction, up from 44 percent before the third presidential debate, where he introduced his new language on Bush.

Among all likely voters, the percentage associating McCain with Bush is less than 50 percent for the first time, albeit barely, at 49 percent. Forty-eight percent said McCain would mainly continue to lead in Bush's footsteps.

A senior Republican close to the campaign said internal GOP polling underscores those findings.

"It's night and day," the source said. "You have somebody whose public approval is in the 20s. There's just not a 'there' there anymore in terms of residual support."

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