Subject matter, not age, creates more ‘sober’ McCain of 2007

The Straight Talk Express is rolling again, but to many observers, it’s the candidate, not the bus, that is showing signs of high mileage.

Many campaign-watchers have noticed the difference between Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) fire-in-the-belly “insurgent” campaign of 2000 and the reserved, if not downright dour, McCain of 2007.

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That difference, analysts and advisers say, is the result of a more somber mood, more dire subject matter and the overarching difference between running as an outsider and running as an insider. His mood, they say, is not the result of his age.

“It’s a lot more fun and a lot more exciting to rally voters against special interests than it is to try to rebuild support for the war in Iraq,” said Dan Schnur, McCain’s 2000 campaign communications director.

Schnur, who now lectures at the University of California-Berkeley, said McCain was running a more fun campaign as an “insurgent” candidate in 2000, a “quarterback scrambling for first downs and throwing long.”

“But in a campaign like this, you have to stay in the pocket,” he added.

One main reason for that is the subject matter.

When McCain addressed the International Association of Fire Fighters union last week, there was a deafening silence as he reiterated and defended his desire for victory in Iraq and restated his support for an increase in troop levels.

“There aren’t a lot of applause lines in a speech on Iraq,” Schnur said, adding that McCain could not apply during a war the same campaign model that he did on issues like campaign-finance reform.

“He’d look ridiculous and he knows it,” Schnur said. “So he appropriately takes a more sober approach.”

And McCain often says in his stump speeches and interviews that he would rather lose a campaign than a war.

Dante Scala, an associate professor at St. Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics, saw that approach when he attended one of McCain’s speeches in Exeter last Sunday.

Scala said the “friendly crowd” offered applause when McCain talked of supporting the troops but only “respectful silence” when the senator spoke on his “stay the course” beliefs.

“There wasn’t a lot of applause in that part of the speech,” Scala said, adding that McCain appeared to be “robust” during his 90-minute speech.

Scala said that when one voter rose and told the senator that he had lost a son in Iraq, the crowd and McCain “seemed to come to a halt.”

“That puts a damper on him and really makes him kind of more sober,” Scala said.

Another reason for McCain’s more subdued stump style has to do with a change in roles, Berkeley’s Schnur said. He is no longer an outsider attacking the system but an insider supportive of an unpopular White House.

Since his defeat in 2000 in a nomination race that can politely be called brutal, McCain has worked to better position himself within the establishment GOP, an establishment that was, and in many quarters remains, distrustful of him.
Dennis Goldford, a political science professor at Iowa’s Drake University, said McCain has been reaching out to the more conservative and establishment factions of the Republican Party, in some ways to his detriment.

Those efforts, Goldford said, have cost McCain a lot of the support from the independent and moderate Democratic voters who propelled him to his landslide over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the New Hampshire primary.

The Granite State primary, Goldford noted, is an open primary.

“I think he and his folks have come out to play the game, but the game has changed,” Goldford said, adding, “I’m not surprised if the crowds are smaller or less enthusiastic.”

Goldford said McCain has tied himself to Bush to a perilous degree, and his only “escape hatch” is to convince voters that he believes that while the war was important and necessary, the Bush administration has badly mismanaged it.

But that tactic, said Goldford, opens the risk that McCain becomes another “Flip Romney” — the nickname some have given to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), who has over the years changed his positions on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

And if McCain fails to draw that distinction between himself and Bush, he will be linked with the president and his sinking approval ratings.

“He has latched himself to the ‘SS Bush,’” Goldford said. “If the ‘SS Bush’ goes down, [McCain] goes down with it.”
But Schnur believes that that allegiance does not necessarily translate into defeat.

“You can turn it into a positive if you make the case effectively,” Schnur said. “But no matter how you make the case, you’re not going to be able to turn it into an inspirational crowd-pleaser like he did when he talked about cleaning up a corrupt government.”

That said, McCain will need to make his more sober-minded approach to the Iraq war as appealing, if not as exciting, as his “pep rallies” in 2000.

“He has to figure out a way to convince voters that the McCain surge would’ve been something different than the Bush surge,” he continued. “That’s a challenging message to deliver on the campaign trail.”