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."
After the two waged a fierce campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000, McCain remained a burr in Bush's side in the early part of his administration, although he strongly supported the Iraq war and came to endorse Bush's tax cuts despite initial misgivings. During his 2008 campaign, McCain has irritated the White House with his coolness, criticizing as a "failure" its response to Hurricane Katrina and almost never appearing in public with Bush.
Yet these efforts have done little to convince a skeptical electorate. Even McCain's acknowledgment of Bush's wartime leadership at the Republican National Convention, without mentioning him by name, made listeners unhappy, according to internal GOP focus groups.
Many Democrats doubt that McCain will be able to make enough progress to change the trajectory of the race in the final two weeks, no matter what new rhetoric he may offer. They argue that he dug his own grave when he embraced Republican orthodoxy on the utility of tax cuts to help stimulate economic growth, shifting his own position and embracing the approach Bush pushed aggressively.
"McCain, like Bush, is emerging as someone who makes rapid, gut-level decisions," said Bill Galston, a centrist Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He said McCain "has made remarkably little headway with the 'I'm not Bush' argument."
Mark McKinnon, Bush's former media adviser and a former consultant for McCain, played down the idea that the president is as much of a burden as his party label is this year. "I think voters figured out long ago that John McCain is not George Bush," he wrote in an e-mail exchange. "But it doesn't matter much either way. John McCain is a Republican, and in the current environment, that's about a 10-point anchor dragging on your chances."
McCain spent Monday in Missouri, a critical swing state, where he continued his efforts to sow unease about Obama's economic policies as a plan to redistribute wealth rather than grow the economy. "I think a lot of blame is put on George Bush that does not deserve to be there," said Carol Pappas, 52, a stay-at-home mom. "On the other hand, a lot of Americans are blaming George Bush for the economy, which I disagree with. In order to have a chance in this election, McCain . . . has to have them understand that this is not another eight years of what they perceive as bad government."
Some of the people at a rally in St. Louis criticized Obama for making more of a connection between Bush and McCain than is warranted. "He isn't George Bush," said Cathy Beck, 49, who runs a small business with her husband. "I think this has been one of the unfairest campaigns of my lifetime."
Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant and author of the forthcoming "Rendezvous With Destiny," about Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign, said in an interview that McCain is doing the "right thing" before Election Day. But he said the senator avoided the one major break he could have made with Bush -- opposing the Wall Street rescue package.
Going against Bush would have put voters on notice that McCain is a different kind of politician, Shirley said.
"He would have helped himself immensely if he had opposed the bailout," he said. "All the elites were all arrayed against the American people. He would have been the populist champion standing up" to them.
Shear reported from Washington. Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.