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The New and Improved John McCain

The arrival of ex-Bush campaign wiz Steve Schmidt has breathed new life into the candidate's moribund efforts.

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

July 29, 2008 - 12:00 am
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He hit the airwaves last Monday to blast Obama personally – calling him out for poor judgment on the surge, playing politics with the war and being stubborn and immune to the facts on the ground. And he did it again at a town hall on Tuesday. That’s a far cry from the days when McCain couldn’t bring himself to say an ill word about his opponent.

And finally, although not a match for Obama’s soaring rhetorical flights of fancy, Schmidt has found some preferred settings to place McCain and allow him to show off his record and rebut some negative attacks from Obama’s team. There are few set-speeches like the much-ridiculed address before the pea-green backdrop to compare unfavorably with Obama’s mass rallies.

A Republican operative closely following the foreign policy debate says, “The trips to Canada and Colombia were great opportunities to show that McCain understands what really counts in diplomacy better than Obama. Now the upcoming forum at Saddleback Church offers another chance for McCain to undermine Obama’s efforts to caricature him as a warmonger by touting his efforts in the Senate to make sure America promotes stability in the world by improving health, education, and economic opportunity in other countries.”

Still, the McCain team certainly is not without its problems.

With the exception of energy policy, McCain has yet to hit on a winning economic message or come up with a slogan to rival “change.” Conservatives continue to pepper the campaign with ideas, but no single, penetrating message has stuck.

In addition, McCain’s surrogates can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Phil Gramm ran head first into McCain’s effort to show he cares about the little guy, and brought on a few days of bad press as the Obama team milked the gaffe for all it was worth until Gramm finally stepped down. Even Carly Fiorina, his articulate business maven, came under fire for getting McCain into uncomfortable turf.

Moreover, there really is no antidote to the media love-fest for Obama and the imbalance in coverage and disparagement of McCain’s chances can, if unchecked, become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Not even Schmidt can convince voters that McCain is as “new” and “exciting” as Obama.

And finally, McCain is still struggling to combat the constant refrain that his administration would be a Bush third term. He continues to list his differences with the Bush administration but hasn’t yet unlocked the key to convincing voters that he’s not a Bush clone. Will he refashion our alliances? Be a better executive? Depart from traditional Republican pro-business policies in some way? McCain hasn’t really told us.

Still, with most polls showing the race within the margin of error, Schmidt can take credit for having at least righted the listing McCain ship. McCain will never be the champion of the conservative base in the way Ronald Reagan was, and Schmidt wisely has resisted the urge to even try to reposition McCain. (Considering how tough Obama’s reinvention has been going, even conservatives recognize the need to allow McCain “wide berth” on deviations from conservative orthodoxy.) But Schmidt arguably has made the most of his candidate and the media atmosphere he has been given to work with.

In an election year in which the punditocracy is convinced that the election is Obama’s to lose, Schmidt is trying to give him every chance to do just that. If he pulls it off, the recriminations and second guessing of the early summer will be forgotten. And if not, there will be plenty of “I told you so’s.”

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Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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