McCain steps up attacks on Bush

In his official campaign kickoff, the Arizona senator comes out swinging against the Texas governor and GOP presidential front-runner.

Topics: 2000 Elections, Education, George W. Bush, Republican Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.,

In an attempt to position himself as a credible alternative to GOP front-runner George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., kicked off a four-day campaign swing Monday by highlighting the contrasts between himself and the Texas governor. While never mentioning his GOP rival by name, McCain’s speech today implied that Bush was a glib, inexperienced lightweight.

That thinly veiled attack will no doubt be a centerpiece of McCain’s upcoming campaign stops from South Carolina to California, as the senator rides high on the media bounce from Monday’s announcement. The message, if effectively conveyed, will transmit the following: McCain deep, Bush shallow. McCain conservative, Bush squishy. McCain Vietnam war hero, Bush rich-boy National Guardsman. McCain bold, Bush lame. McCain open and honest about his sins, Bush obfuscatory.

And in the end, McCain hopes voters will eventually conclude: McCain strong, Bush weak.

Tuesday will bring a two-pronged, double-V attack: veterans and vouchers. McCain heads to South Carolina, where he will appear at a number of events aimed at veterans - a natural voting block because of McCain’s Navy veteran and POW status — who are said to constitute 30 percent of the Republican primary voting populace in that state.

Also on Tuesday, McCain will rattle his reformist sabre by proposing a three-year targeted school voucher experiment, which he will fund by eliminating government subsidies for the ethanol, sugar and oil-and-gas industries. Bush stopped short of supporting a voucher program in his education speech earlier this month, and has been mum on the sacred subsidies.

On Wednesday, McCain is scheduled to symbolically grab the mantle of the conservative outsider by appearing alongside Nancy Reagan at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif. There McCain will outline a speech on defense and foreign policy, an area of particular strength for him and of vulnerability for Bush — who has confused Slovenia and Slovakia, called Kosovars “Kosovarians,” and called East Timorese “East Timorians.”

To further shore up McCain’s conservative bona fides, uber-right-wing media magnate Rupert Murdoch will host a fund-raiser for McCain that evening at his Los Angeles home.

Monday’s kickoff speech at Greeley Park was vintage John McCain. Railing against special interests, he took veiled shots at Bush and not-so-veiled ones at both President Bill Clinton and Congress. He rebuffed isolationism, insisting that the United States “must be involved in the destiny of other nations.” The 30-minute speech was also — characteristically — professionally bold and personally modest. He outlined a few policy priorities including campaign finance reform, a stronger defense, an interventionist military strategy and school vouchers.

But its main theme has been the centerpiece of McCain’s entire presidential campaign — himself, his character and his story.

“I do not announce my candidacy to satisfy my personal ambitions,” he said. “My life has already been blessed more than I deserve … It is because I owe America more than she has ever owed me that I am a candidate.”

Surrounded by 500 or so big-shot supporters, New Hampshire veterans and curious townies, McCain didn’t bother outlining his compelling bio. He didn’t need to. Remnants of the torture he withstood from his captors is written in the slightly awkward way he holds his arms — a permanent reminder of war injuries. And posters of McCain as a dashing young Navy flyboy — the same photo featured on the cover of his bestseller “Faith of My Fathers” (soon to be No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list) — stood on the side, behind the crowd.

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When most politicians wax humble, it couldn’t sound less sincere. But McCain constantly reminds his audiences of his shortcomings and flaws, and somehow is able to sound credible. Some of this is attributable to the military code of virtue, which requires self-sacrifice. More than a touch of it stems from his five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton. No doubt a healthy sampling comes from legitimate feelings of inadequacy in the shadow of his father and grandfather, both of whom were four-star admirals. Some of it is from his legitimate screw-ups, such as his failed first marriage.

And since humility and forthrightness are so rare in Washington, his personality may be McCain’s strongest asset — especially among members of the media, who freely partake in the cult of McCain’s iconoclastic personality.

McCain asserted that his sum total life’s experience had offered him the gravitas to appreciate the significance of the office he’s running for. In what was clearly a slap at front-runner Bush — who is seen by some critics as perhaps not the deepest pond on the farm — McCain asserted that the task of national security “requires a commander-in-chief who has the experience to understand and lead a volatile and changing world.”

“When it comes time to make the decision to send our young men and women into harm’s way, that decision should be made by a leader who knows that such decisions have profound consequences,” McCain said. “I’m not afraid of the burden.”

The phrase “I’m not afraid” found its way into McCain’s speech five times.

And who would be afraid?

“There comes a time when our nation’s leader can no longer rely on briefing books and talking points,” McCain said, painting an image of Bush in the midst of a rich college-boy’s cramming tutorial.

“When the experts and the advisors have all weighed in, when the sum total of one’s life becomes the foundation from which he or she makes the decisions that determine the future of our democracy … For no matter how many others are involved in the decision, the president is a lonely man in a dark room when the casualty reports come in.”

The “foundation” that makes the “sum total” of McCain’s life is one that even many Democrats attest is solid. “Americans can sleep well at night if McCain is elected president,” says Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., who has endorsed former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.

In addition to throwing down his commander-in-chief cred, McCain used his kickoff speech to build on the reputation he has established through his well documented battle against the Republican congressional leadership on campaign finance reform. McCain decried a “government auctioned to the highest bidder.”

Campaign-finance reform isn’t just an issue, the Arizona Republican said, it is the issue. Without successfully reducing the influence of big money in the political system, according to McCain, no other real reform is possible. “Restoring honesty to our political system is the gateway through which all other policy reforms must pass,” he said.

Health-care reform cannot happen without reining “in the power of trial lawyers and the influence of insurance companies.” Easing taxes on families is impossible without ending “the special interests loopholes and pork barrel spending that are a result of a campaign financing system that is nothing more than a sophisticated influence peddling scheme.”

And education reform — which McCain, as almost every other candidate, claimed was one of his most important issues — will never occur without putting an end to the power of the teachers lobbies, organizations that tolerate incompetence. “Some people just aren’t meant to be teachers, and we should help them find another line of work,” McCain said, to the enthusiastic cheers of the children and college students in attendance.

McCain also blasted “isolationism and protectionism” as “a fool’s errand. We should build no walls in a futile attempt to keep the world at bay. Walls are for cowards, not for us. We must be involved in the destiny of other nations,” McCain said. “That does not mean we have relinquished our sovereignty. It means we have persuaded much of the world to share our ideals.”

The “cowards” slam was clearly meant as a dig against CNN talking head Pat Buchanan, whom McCain has taken to task for his recent book, “A Republic, Not an Empire,” in which Buchanan says that the U.S. had no compelling interest in entering World War II.

On the contrary, McCain argued, the U.S. had a responsibility to intervene not only then, but now, and forever more.

McCain’s speech resonated with the senator’s loyal followers. “A lot of people are saying ‘Who’s McCain?’” observed Dana Hussey, 50, a Vietnam Air Force veteran and the New Hampshire Veterans of Foreign Wars state adjutant. Hussey downplayed the long odds facing the McCain campaign. “Bush has more name recognition … But I’m a McCain supporter from way back. And each time I see him speak he impresses me more and more.”

For McCain, however, favorably contrasting himself with Bush is obviously an easy task compared with actually beating him. Bush is said to be pursuing a fund-raising goal of $100 million — a daunting number for any opposing candidate. When asked how McCain can possibly beat Bush’s $100 million, spokesman Dan Schnur responded: “One state at a time.”

They will do this, McCain’s team says, through careful and clever strategy. McCain’s grandfather, Adm. John McCain, was a strong proponent of the power of naval aviation — to the point that he pooh-poohed the atom bomb. “Give me enough fast carriers and let me run them,” he said, “and you can have your atom bomb.”

In the same way, McCain and his team pooh-pooh Bush’s potential $100 mil, hoping that their strategy and armada of McCain’s various attributes — character, courage and message — can do the job.

McCain strategists say that the campaign will completely bypass the Iowa caucus (“What’s Iowa?” one adviser joked), and concentrate its efforts on New Hampshire and South Carolina. If they come alive there as a solid alternative, and if Bush stumbles, then no one knows what could happen.

Schnur said that “If we can raise between $15 [million] and $20 million by the end of the year” — a goal they’ll assuredly be able to achieve, otherwise he wouldn’t have said it — “we’ll be able to spend competitively with Bush and [publisher Malcolm "Steve"] Forbes in the first two primary states.”

“They can’t spend all $100 million in New Hampshire,” seconded former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman, a McCain 2000 co-chair. Rudman said that the campaign planned on taking on TV spots in New Hampshire during this fall. And once voters are introduced to him, McCain and his story will do the rest of the work. “We’ll get McCain’s name recognition up, and then we’ll see what happens in January.”

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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