Monday, November 26, 2007

Returning From Iraq, McCain Focuses on New Hampshire

Reprinted From -
Republican Contender Attempts to Set Himself Apart From Pack in New Hampshire
Nov. 23, 2007 —

When he talks about his national security credentials, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., likes to point out that he already knows foreign leaders like Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and that he has traveled the world extensively.

Almost as an aside, he says former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani has never been to Iraq and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has gone only once. This week marked McCain's seventh visit to Iraq.

So, even though McCain traveled to Iraq this week very quietly for a politician  no press entourage, no public events  the trip still carried political overtones and imagery: McCain conferring with Iraqi leaders and Gen. David Petraeus in Baghdad while his rivals sit down to turkey at home.

Iraq Position Once a Political Liability
McCain, the candidate who paid the political price for his early, unwavering support for sending in more troops, is now proved right as the troop surge is apparently working.

On a trip to Iraq in April, McCain was ridiculed by some for saying the security situation had improved while he was under the heavy protection of U.S. troops. This time, the security situation really has improved.

In Baghdad, McCain only somewhat facetiously told ABC's Aaron Katersky, "The surest sign that things are working [is] they don't call it the McCain surge anymore."

Steadfast Support for the Surge
His support for the war and the surge and his backing of the ill-fated immigration bill hurt McCain with Republican voters. Immigration still does. But the decreasing violence in Iraq has given McCain a new opening on that issue.

At the same time, his steadfast support for the surge reinforces his image as a straight talker who is willing to buck popular sentiment for what he believes in. And just in case voters miss it, he's quite willing to point it out.

Campaigning in New Hampshire last week, he said: "They said McCain's chances to be president are permanently damaged and they may have been right. But I've said many times, I'd rather lose the campaign than lose the war."

"It's something of a risky argument because the war continues to be generally unpopular, though that's not quite the case among Republicans," said political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.

"In talking about his support for the surge, you have to evaluate it two ways. & Is the surge working? And I think many Republicans think it is. & But the other side of that is John McCain and consistency. He says what he believes even if it's unpopular, even if others criticize him and that is an appealing quality for many Americans and for many Republicans."

'It Was Mishandled'
But McCain is also trying to make sure he is not seen as having been blindly supportive of how the war was planned and the occupation handled.

On the stump these days, he notes that he was critical of the Bush administration and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld in particular for not committing more troops sooner.

"It was mishandled by the secretary of defense and this administration and it was mishandled for nearly four years," he said at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H.

The challenge for McCain now is to get Republican voters to give him a second look. Unlike, say, Romney, he's already well-known. Some Republicans like him. Some don't. There is probably not a huge segment of those who haven't already considered him and decided one way or the other.

With just weeks to go before the first contests, the McCain strategy appears to be to focus most of his time, resources and energy on New Hampshire, where McCain beat President Bush by 18 points in 2000.

He trails badly in Iowa and likely won't be spending much, if any, time there before the Jan. 3 caucus. A strong showing in Iowa by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee could help McCain by hurting Romney.

McCain trails Romney in New Hampshire, but he is hoping the combination of a big effort  he'll spend at least five straight days in the Granite State at the beginning of December  and Romney coming out of Iowa slowed or weakened could give him the boost to win there.

Another theme he will be pushing will be "electability." Some polls show he is the strongest GOP candidate when matched up against Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. More and more often, he is criticizing Clinton's positions even while assailing his rivals for "ridiculing" and "degrading" her in their own more personal attacks. He even talks about "when" he beats her in November.

But first things first: like getting the Republican nomination. A win in New Hampshire would be a huge step in that direction. A loss there and he's almost surely finished.

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