Two conflicting images of John McCain are playing out in the media echo chamber of presidential campaign coverage.
The preferred McCain narrative, as captured by the Arizona senator's initial ads, is of a war hero who emerged from captivity in Vietnam to combat the entrenched special interests of Washington.
The darker view, conveyed by two recent newspaper accounts, is of an abrasive, ill-tempered fellow who repeatedly beats up on reporters and fellow politicians.
The dueling portraits may of course be related--political battlers tend to bruise people--and it's not clear whether the temper stories are merely a temporary blip. But some analysts say such reports are hardly a major problem.
"The temper issue probably helps McCain, especially if he handles it well," said Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. He noted that presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Bill Clinton all were renowned for their outbursts.
"We have senators and governors whining to the newspapers that John McCain yelled at them?" Kristol asked. "That's different from being a jerk who bullies 22-year-old aides who can't defend themselves."
Ed Gillespie, a GOP strategist, said that voters "want their executive to be hard-charging. I don't think it's ever hurt a politician to be seen as not suffering fools gladly, which is how the story is playing."
At the same time, he cautioned, Americans "want a cooling and calming presence in the White House. Our presidents don't take their shoes off and bang on the table at the U.N."
The issue surfaced last week when Arizona's GOP governor, Jane Hull, and other politicians told the New York Times about heated conversations with McCain. The Arizona Republic published a blistering editorial Sunday questioning whether McCain's "volcanic" temper renders him unfit for the Oval Office.
Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director, sees a silver lining. "Most Americans don't know McCain," he said yesterday. "If the first thing they learn about him is that he's a fighter, even if he sometimes offends people, that's not such a bad thing. If they see him getting mad on behalf of something they think is important, they're going to respond very well."
Indeed, McCain doesn't mind alienating other senators--as he did by charging that money has corrupted the political process--if that casts him as a reformer who wants to clean up the Washington mess.
Darrell West, a Brown University political scientist, says voters like feistiness when they support the underlying cause. "McCain has made a lot of hay at the expense of the tobacco industry and special interests," he said. "But if he gets angry at a popular target or female governor, that's considered inappropriate. It's no longer principle but pathology."
A central premise of McCain's candidacy is that voters will link his war service to his career as a maverick politician. McCain aides dismiss the notion that his temper is unusual, blaming such stories on backers of front-runner George W. Bush. Some McCain supporters point to a scene in Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" in which Bush, described as "the Roman candle of the family," got into a shouting match over not being seated in his father's box at a 1986 Houston Astros game.
Whatever their origin, media-generated images--Vice President Gore as stiff, Clinton as slippery, Bush as uninterested in policy--have a way of sticking. If McCain were to snap at a voter on the campaign trail, the footage might be replayed almost as often as the scene of then-vice president Dan Quayle misspelling potato.
"The danger is being thought of as a lightweight, not being thought of as hot-tempered," said Kristol, a former Quayle aide. "It's unfortunately what hurt Quayle so badly. Al Gore is wonderfully even-tempered, but people are making fun of him."
Leadership, analysts say, is ultimately a balancing act. "Americans love an underdog who battles," said GOP ad-maker Alex Castellanos. "But the closer you get to the big chair, and the big red button, it's a steadier hand you want."
Castellanos says McCain's "whole candidacy is independence and being a little in-your-face. His best strategy is to be John McCain and let the chips fall where they may."
CAPTION: Newspapers have portrayed Sen. John McCain as war hero with short fuse.