McCain draws heat from vet group, Club for Growth

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began the presidential race as a frontrunner with a well-known personal story and a unique style. But in recent weeks his past has provoked some potentially harmful early opposition stemming from those same qualities.

Despite McCain’s recent appeals to the GOP’s conservative base and a positive military image as a former prisoner of war, his record is drawing the ire of economic conservatives and some of the same veterans who worked to tar Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 2004 presidential campaign.

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The anti-tax group Club for Growth yesterday released a review of McCain’s record on its top priorities and cautioned against electing him president. Meanwhile, a new “527” advocacy group, similar to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has pledged to expose McCain as a communist apologist who turned his back on prisoners of war.

In the Club’s review — its third “white paper” of the 2008 presidential election — the group concluded “the evidence of [McCain’s] record and the virulence of his rhetoric suggest that American taxpayers cannot expect consistently strong economic policies from a McCain administration.”

In particular, the Club calls McCain’s tax record, most notably his opposition in 2001 and 2003 to President Bush’s tax cuts, “profoundly disturbing and anti-growth,” though it does praise him in areas such as spending restraint and free trade. It also calls his record on protecting political speech “appalling” in light of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform bill.

“While Sen. McCain’s economic record is clearly mixed, a careful study demonstrates that even his pro-growth positions tend to be tainted by a heavy anti-growth undercurrent,” Club President Pat Toomey wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.

The Club’s opposition to then-Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) in a bitter Republican primary last cycle might have contributed to his loss in the general election. More broadly, the group acts as a voice for economic conservatism. In previous evaluations, it offered some criticism of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and a generally positive review of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

McCain declined an invitation to the Club’s winter conference recently, citing a planned trip to Iraq at the same time.

McCain spokesman Matt David downplayed any differences with the Club’s core economic philosophy, noting that McCain has received an “A” from the National Taxpayers Union and a 91 percent rating from Citizens Against Government Waste.

“John McCain is the only leading Republican candidate with a 24-year record as a fiscal conservative,” David said. “He’s been a leader in the fight to cut government waste, reduce spending and lower taxes.”

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign had no comment on the new 527, known as “Vietnam Veterans Against John McCain.” It is founded by the same veterans who ran an Internet information campaign against Kerry in 2004, “Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry.”

Vietnam veterans Jerry Kiley and Ted Sampley filed with the IRS late last month and recently launched a website with the “express purpose of defeating John McCain.” In contrast to the 2004 election, the group plans to run ads on television and radio in addition to its Web-based approach.

In 2004, the group made a splash by publicizing pictures of Kerry at anti-war protests in the 1970s, including one showing him several rows behind Jane Fonda. It claims credit for originating many of the attacks used by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth later in the campaign.

Sampley has compared McCain to the brainwashed “Manchurian Candidate” and is highly critical of McCain’s actions after his return home from Vietnam. Sampley calls himself “the one McCain hates most” and has a long history of battling McCain, including a conviction in the early 1990s for assaulting McCain aide Mark Salter.

“He has a false, media-created image of himself, and we want to correct that,” said Sampley, who publishes the U.S. Veteran Dispatch newspaper. The paper is not associated with the 527 and has endorsed Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

In a 2004 New York Times article, McCain called Sampley “one of the most despicable people I have ever had the misfortune to encounter.”

“I consider him a fraud who preys on the hopes of family members of missing servicemen for his own profit,” McCain said. “He is dishonorable, an enemy of the truth, and despite his claims, he does not speak for or represent the views of all but a few veterans.”