McCain Victory Built on War Experience

By: Wall Street Journal


NASHUA, N.H. — “John has cheated death again.”

Orson Swindle, a Vietnam veteran who spent two years in a cell with John McCain when they were prisoners of war, made that comment last weekend as surging crowds and polls indicated Sen. McCain was pulling to the front of the Republican pack ahead of yesterday’s New Hampshire primary. Just six months ago, most pundits had written off Sen. McCain after he purged his campaign team and saw his unpopular positions on immigration and Iraq sink his poll numbers.

Last night, he cemented his comeback by winning this state’s Republican primary by a wide margin over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Now, Sen. McCain is poised to continue his battle for his party’s presidential nomination with first stops today in Michigan and South Carolina. His campaign — down to its “No Surrender” theme — is infused with the language and images of a warrior given a second chance.

“I’m not even supposed to be here,” Sen. McCain said in an interview on his campaign bus, the Straight-Talk Express. Marveling on what he called his “Lazarus life,” he said: “I feel momentum again.”

His march may be uphill. The Arizona senator has been a vocal supporter of an unpopular war in Iraq and has pressed for continued troop presence there. His poll surge has put him in rivals’ sights: Last weekend, Mr. Romney’s campaign released examples of Sen. McCain’s “volcanic temper” and questioned his suitability to have his finger on “the trigger.” When it comes to campaigning, analysts say, Sen. McCain may be stronger as a counterpunching underdog than a front-running candidate.

His political trajectory may also be moving against the grain of popular sentiment. With a toughness that helped him survive five years in a North Vietnamese POW camp and a straight-talking delivery that has fueled his political resurrection, Sen. McCain has long positioned himself as a maverick. But lately he has broadened his appeal to the Republican establishment by courting the religious right (he once called Jerry Falwell an “agent of intolerance”) and toughened his immigration stance. This mainstream zig comes as candidates in both parties are zagging, positioning themselves as change-seeking outsiders.

In a recent ad, Sen. McCain reminded voters that he’s the same soldier he’s always been. “My friends, you haven’t changed and neither have I,” he said.

Sen. McCain’s campaign is benefiting from a combination of developments. The unexpected Iowa victory of Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist-minister-turned-governor, is persuading some Republicans that Sen. McCain is more of a known quantity, even as he rails against the Washington establishment. Improving conditions in Iraq and unease about terrorism and global hot spots — driven home two weeks ago by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan — are highlighting Sen. McCain’s foreign-policy experience.

“Having a president who’s been a prisoner of war, and will ensure our national defense, mattered more to me this time,” says Andreas Reif, a Manchester resident. Mr. Reif says he intended to vote for Mr. Huckabee, but surprised himself when he entered the voting booth yesterday and instead chose Sen. McCain. “I’m a born-again Christian, but I believe McCain on the serious threats we face. It’s not just a scare tactic. Times have changed.”

Following yesterday’s primary, Republicans are embarking on a headlong rush, crisscrossing the country in the next three weeks for contests in Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and Florida. The biggest test comes on Feb. 5 when more than 20 states — including delegate-rich California and New York — hold primaries. Nominations could be wrapped up that day, though the contest could drag on if no clear front-runner emerges.

From George Washington and Andrew Jackson to Dwight Eisenhower, America has often turned to warrior presidents to lead through times of uncertainty. While military experience hasn’t always proved a requirement or selling point, it was an important credential in the campaign biographies of PT-boat commander John F. Kennedy and World War II pilot George H.W. Bush.

At his lowest political moment this summer, Sen. McCain returned to his own military identity by launching his “No Surrender” tour, which the McCain camp says referred not only to the Iraq war but his own campaign. His skeletal army dubbed itself “Foxhole Productions.”

“When his political future collapsed, John’s warrior spirit got him through,” says Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of his best friends. “Just like his time as a POW, he took it one day at a time…and never gave up.”

Sen. McCain acknowledges this may be his last chance at the presidency. “I don’t see myself doing this again,” the 71-year-old Sen. McCain said in an interview. He once hinted that he might seek only one term, as some voters raise questions about his age, but has since said he wouldn’t rule out a second term.

In some ways, the narrative of Sen. McCain as a political survivor mirrors his military history.

After being assumed dead when his plane was shot down in Vietnam in 1967, he emerged in Hanoi, badly injured, as a prisoner of war. With a grandfather and father who were admirals in the Navy, the young McCain, after a year in prison, was offered early release by his captors. But Mr. McCain refused, even as his own father, who was commanding U.S. forces in the Pacific, was ordering more bombing. Later, he would say he wanted to prevent the Vietnamese from using his release for propaganda purposes.

“Being a POW was a physically arduous and character-building experience which set the course of his life,” says Mark Salter, his senior adviser and confidante.

At the start of this presidential race in early 2007, polls showed Sen. McCain was a front-runner for the Republican nomination. But he wasn’t getting traction as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson received more attention. By summer, the campaign had spent nearly all of its money without results. Sen. McCain couldn’t run ads, conduct polls or even continue on the trail with his plush campaign bus.

He fired two top managers, resulting in a mass staff exodus. Fund raising dried up. Morale sank. Borrowing a Navy expression, Sen. McCain urged his few remaining advisers to “keep a steady strain” on the fledgling team.

“He got out of the uncomfortable position of being a candidate with consultants,” says Sen. Graham. “He got command and control of his campaign, looking at it as a military decision.”

As summer wore on, Republican presidential candidates had largely quit talking about the Iraq war. Democrats called for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops. Sen. McCain, who had blasted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for “not having enough boots on the ground” early in the war, took a politically risky stand by aligning himself with President Bush’s troop buildup, or “surge.”

Sen. McCain also found himself hurt by what has become a key issue of the Republican primary campaign, immigration. In what was seen at the time as a landmark bill, Sen. McCain last year endorsed immigration reform that promised a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented workers now in the U.S. Critics say the plan provided de facto amnesty to illegal immigrants. He has since said the U.S. must first secure its borders before undertaking immigration reform.

The immigration issue also revealed what critics say is one of Sen. McCain’s biggest flaws, his temper. During one Senate meeting on the immigration legislation, he attacked Sen. John Cornyn of Texas for raising what he characterized as trivial objections to a compromise being worked out with the White House.

“You’ve been too busy campaigning” to understand the negotiations, Sen. Cornyn responded. “You just parachute in here on the last day. You’re out of line.”

“F — you!” Sen. McCain fired back. “I know more about this than anyone else in the room.”

In September, with polls showing him trailing Messrs. Romney and Giuliani, Sen. McCain began his “No Surrender” tour. The campaign rounded up a cheaper bus, with a noisy engine and inexplicable rattles, again calling it the Straight Talk Express.

Pundits questioned the political savvy of making the case for staying in Iraq. But it provided Sen. McCain a chance to showcase his foreign-policy expertise, a particularly important issue to Republican voters. “I’d rather lose a [presidential] election than lose a war,” Sen. McCain said repeatedly at the time.

Media adviser Mark McKinnon adopted a new theme song, “If We Make It Through December” by Merle Haggard. “All we had to do was survive and be there at the end when the primaries started,” Mr. McKinnon says.

Around the same time, a campaign videographer, Justin Germany, discovered old footage showing a young McCain as a prisoner of war, injured and lying on a hospital bed. Mr. Germany suggested using it in a biographical section of the campaign Web site.

Sen. McCain had vetoed detailed POW discussion during his presidential run in 2000, saying he didn’t want to exploit the drama for political purpose. Faced with video footage, he had a stronger reaction: He thought the scene of him as an injured captive made him look “weak.”

“That’s a critical part of your background,” a top adviser, Charlie Black, recalls telling him. “A lot of young people don’t even know about it.”

Sen. McCain countered: “It’s part of my résumé, but people aren’t going to vote for me for that. They want to know what I’m going to do for them.”

Sen. McCain ultimately took his advisers’ counsel, allowing the video to go on the Web site. In an October debate, he played to his POW experience. He criticized Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s funding request for a Woodstock concert museum. “I wasn’t there,” he quipped. “I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.” He got a standing ovation.

With little money, the McCain campaign skipped the Iowa caucuses and spent this fall focused on the New Hampshire primary, where he beat President Bush eight years ago. He began traveling with two dozen aging military veterans, several of them former Vietnam POWs.

He held scores of town hall meetings, like the one last week in Peterboro, N.H. The veterans filed onto the stage, the candidate following behind. His wife, Cindy, introduced her husband, noting that they have two sons in the military, with one now in Iraq.

“The first reason I’m running for president is the war in Iraq,” Sen. McCain said when he took the microphone. “The final reason I’m running is the war in Iraq….My friends, I’m ready to be commander-in-chief from Day One, based on my lifetime of service for this country.”

Sen. McCain also met with news outlets all over the state. The press blitz paid off, he said in an interview, when newspapers overwhelmingly endorsed him among Republicans. “It gave voters a reason to give me a second look.”

Sen. McCain began picking up in the polls in recent weeks, challenging front-runner Mr. Romney. Last week, the McCain campaign released a new TV spot filled with news footage of overseas bombings and militants shaking machine guns in the air. The commercial ends with a quote from opponent Mr. Romney, saying a president doesn’t need “foreign-policy experience.”

Money poured in online. “December was our best month since June,” says Mr. Black, his adviser. The campaign declined to say how much had been raised.

Sen. McCain is getting support from members of the business community including FedEx Corp. Chief Executive Officer Frederick Smith, Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. CEO John Thain and private-equity pioneer Henry Kravis, co-founder of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. On the campaign trail last week, he took a telephone call from Cisco Systems Inc. CEO John Chambers. “When I’m president, I’ll draft you,” Sen. McCain told Mr. Chambers, before thanking him for his “service to this country.”

Once his victory was announced in New Hampshire just after polls closed here last night, his supporters chanted: “Mac is Back!”

There are obstacles ahead. Mr. Romney, whose father was the three-time governor of Michigan, is likely to have a strong showing in that state. Mr. Giuliani has high hopes for Florida, where many New Yorkers live. Mr. Huckabee is expected to do well in South Carolina, with its large number of evangelical voters — the same constituency that backed President Bush in 2000 over the then-front-running Sen. McCain.

South Carolina Sen. Graham, however, says several pro-life evangelicals now back Sen. McCain, as do many Bush supporters. The campaign hopes the Arizona senator will appeal as a commander-in-chief to the state’s many veterans, as well.

Sen. McCain’s campaign is also still feeling this summer’s effects. Because his financing and poll numbers were low then, he doesn’t have big organizations in the early-primary states such as Michigan and Florida, which could make it difficult to capitalize on his surge.

“McCain will have to play his cards brilliantly to win the nomination,” says Republican strategist Tony Fabrizio, who isn’t aligned with any candidate. “He needs to win another major state quickly.”

Should he secure the nomination, Sen. McCain’s foreign-policy experience could appeal to the electorate concerned about international turmoil. Voters fed up with Washington spending could champion Sen. McCain, a fiscal conservative who has railed against pork-barrel projects. He will face other challenges: If voters maintain the push for a “change” candidate, his age and sometimes crotchety style — not to mention his longtime Washington experience — might render him less attractive than, say, Sen. Barack Obama.

But Sen. McCain is also counting on his luck. In his pockets are two nickels and one quarter, all of which he picked from ground “face up” — a sign, he believes, of good fortune.

“I believe in good luck. I’m the luckiest guy alive,” he said in an interview. “How else do you explain that I’m still here?”

Write to Monica Langley at

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