Kosovo Conflict Gives McCain Prominence
By Dan Balz
"We've turned down far more than we've accepted," McCain said somewhat sheepishly in a telephone interview from the Atlanta airport yesterday morning. "Five times as much." He paused, realizing he had overstated. "Well, I don't know the proportion, but it's dramatically more that we've turned down."
Still, no politician has been more visible on the issue of Kosovo the past two weeks than the former Vietnam prisoner of war, and a number of political analysts say his performance has given a boost to his presidential aspirations.
The Arizona senator said he is doing nothing different than he has done during moments of military action in the past, but one Republican strategist dubbed the Kosovo conflict "all McCain, all the time." Others said he has outflanked his rivals in an early test of presidential leadership.
"He is making sense and it's obvious to one and all he knows what he's talking about on an issue that has become of critical importance to the country," Whit Ayres, an Atlanta-based GOP pollster, said of McCain. "He looks presidential at a time when many Republicans don't believe the current president does."
At a time when some of his GOP rivals have appeared tentative in their views or hostile to President Clinton's policy, McCain has been direct. He supported Clinton's decision to launch the airstrikes on Yugoslavia when other Republicans opposed the mission, and he was also among the first to warn, as the bombing campaign appeared to be accelerating Serb atrocities, that U.S. ground troops might be required to end the war -- even though Clinton was opposed.
That position now, surprisingly, enjoys the support of a majority of the American people, according to polls. "He's where the country is," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "Americans certainly like to win and they don't like politicians sniping in the corner when the question is whether we're going to win it. . . . McCain has been straight up in telling people his position and before the political consequences were clear."
But McCain's high-profile advocacy of a win-at-any-cost policy carries risks. A protracted war in the Balkans involving U.S. ground troops and significant casualties could trigger a backlash by the American people against those who had been the most vocal in supporting U.S. intervention.
McCain said yesterday he accepts the consequences. "When I urged the president of the United States not to rule out the option of ground forces, then I also assumed responsibility for what may be the loss of young Americans' lives. . . . I don't know how it affects my campaign. But I've basically put my campaign on hold to some degree."
Before the United States and NATO went to war in Yugoslavia, McCain had planned to spend yesterday on the first day of a four-day, cross-country trip launching his presidential campaign. Late last week he scrubbed the announcement tour, and yesterday he left Washington for a war-related trip to Brussels and Italy with Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and other members of Congress.
"Our announcement was a celebratory occasion," McCain said. "We had high school bands and balloons and as many as 3,000 people coming to an event in Phoenix. I didn't feel that was appropriate."
Several analysts said the contrast between McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) was most striking. "He's shown real leadership," Mellman said. "John McCain actually has a position. George W. Bush finds it almost impossible to articulate a position."
Bush advisers sharply challenged that he had been slow to respond or vague in his comments. "People appreciate that he has handled this in a thoughtful and responsible way," said spokeswoman Karen Hughes. "This is not the time to second-guess or to grandstand."
Vin Weber, a McCain adviser, said he thought only one other Republican candidate had helped his cause during the conflict: Patrick J. Buchanan. "He has been lucid and coherent and forceful about the opposite view [opposing U.S. intervention]," Weber said.
Former vice president Dan Quayle promised to make foreign policy a central issue of the presidential campaign debate, but he has been far less visible than McCain and his policy views less clear-cut.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Quayle said he had predicted the bombing campaign would not work, but said the debate over ground troops is a nonstarter because Clinton opposes them. "I don't believe we ought to push him into doing something he doesn't want to do," Quayle said. "If he did it, it would be half-hearted."
But Quayle also said it was "ridiculous" to take the issue of ground troops off the table. Some ground forces are inevitable, he added, but European members of NATO should shoulder that burden. For now, he said the focus of policy should be to relieve the refugee crisis. He also challenged those who say simply that U.S. policy should be to win the war without stating a clear strategic goal. "We say we're going to win this, but win what?" Quayle said. "The administration has no answer on this."
McCain's advisers said the question of whether the senator's handling of the Kosovo issue had boosted his stature as a candidate should be left to others, although privately they are elated at the attention he has received. But Mellman questioned whether all of the attention will count for much. "I'm not sure this or anything else will lift McCain into the nomination," he said. "The contrast works to his benefit, but he has a long way to go to get over the hump."
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