McCain: Enough about you, let's talk about me

John McCain tries to pull the media spotlight away from Barack Obama, who he thinks doesn't deserve it.

Published July 23, 2008 11:19AM (EDT)

Just as offices were closing up around the capital Monday night, a hot rumor suddenly had politicos and the press alike talking about someone who had slipped a bit from the news over the previous few days: John McCain.

For anyone who pays attention only to news of the actual, not hypothetical, variety, the rumor was that McCain would announce his vice presidential pick this week, swinging the spotlight back off Barack Obama's world tour and onto the Republican candidate. That McCain was about to name his veep seemed unlikely -- for one, Cindy McCain is in Africa this week, unavailable for the obligatory photos of the candidates and their spouses, and one of the top contenders for the job, Mitt Romney, is also on vacation overseas. For another, all three network anchors are with Obama all week; at best, an announcement would provide a brief distraction from Obama's message, not obliterate it.

But from the way the McCain camp reacted to the buzz, you could tell they didn't mind. "We have no announcements to make this afternoon," spokesman Brian Rogers said Monday, somewhat coyly. McCain, asked Monday night if he would be revealing his running mate during a Tuesday campaign stop in New Hampshire, grinned and walked away from reporters on his plane.

By Tuesday afternoon, columnist Robert Novak, whose item had set off all the speculation, was telling Fox News the campaign might have made the whole thing up to get some attention. Other Republicans privately said they were under the impression that McCain aides realized not long after the rumor hit the Web that it could get people talking about their man again. "I don't think they created this," one GOP consultant said. "I think they saw an opportunity and ran with it." Either way, it seemed to work -- cable TV pundits blathered on all day about the vice presidential speculation, even after Novak waved people off his own reporting.

Before Obama's plane lifted off for the Middle East and Europe, McCain aides were worried that media coverage of their rival's trip would drown out their message. By the time Obama had ended his first few days in Iraq and Afghanistan, anxiety had become palpable irritation. In an e-mail to reporters, Rogers referred to Obama as "The One," the snarky, "Matrix"-inspired nickname that's become popular inside McCain's Arlington, Va., headquarters. Aides circulated to supporters, then to the press, a new Web video mocking the media's infatuation with Obama. (Well, it does feature, among other things, MSNBC's Chris Matthews talking about the tingle that runs up his leg when Obama speaks, but it's not as though McCain hasn't cozied up to the press himself.)

The McCain team has legitimate reason to be worried. Obama's trip has generated almost entirely good press; as he arrived in Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki suggested the Iraqi government liked Obama's plan to withdraw troops by 2010 better than McCain's promise to keep them there until the United States declares victory. (Obama even hit a three-point shot while greeting troops in a basketball gym on a military base in Kuwait, preventing what could have been an embarrassing video clip if he'd missed.) Obama's press conference in Jordan Tuesday morning got live coverage all over the cable networks.

By contrast, the networks ran the beginning of McCain's town hall meeting in Rochester, N.H., then cut away. "Now he knows what George Bush felt like in 2000, during the primaries, when the press was lusting after [McCain]," said Grover Norquist, a conservative anti-tax activist who has had a few fights with McCain over the years. "While that gives him some sympathy for what Bush went through, it should also remind him that the press doesn't get to vote -- giving a guy a lot of attention is not the same as convincing people to vote for him."

But what's behind the McCain outrage may be subtler and more strategic than simple pique, real or not. Most complaints about the press's coverage are about working the refs in hopes of gaining a future advantage, and for the right, complaining about the press is also a time-honored ritual. The "liberal media" is one of the enduring bogeymen of the conservative movement. Nothing will help rally the right to McCain faster than the New York Times rejecting a McCain column on Iraq after running one by Obama. But alleging media bias also helps the McCain team make a broader case against Obama: that he hasn't earned the presidency. They see their rival as an inexperienced liberal who has rarely crossed party lines, has barely accomplished anything, and is cruising to the White House because of lofty rhetoric. Saying the media is helping him out implies Obama needs the help.

All the complaints about the press also match up neatly with the McCain team's other main gripe about Obama -- that he's overhyped and, worse, believes his own reviews. The blatantly misleading ad McCain released blaming Obama for high gas prices also featured crowds chanting "O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma," at a rally. The few slip-ups Obama has had while overseas played right into this theme -- the Republican National Committee was quick to point out that Obama implied he'd be president for "eight to 10 years," and that his aides have compared his trip to those made by actual presidents. When Obama said Tuesday morning that his job was to weigh national-security interests, McCain aide Randy Scheunemann couldn't contain his contempt. "He's a candidate for president -- his job is to get elected," Scheunemann told reporters on a conference call. "He seems to forget that we have elections for president in this country, not coronations."

What worries some Republicans, though, is what's left in McCain's quiver if these tactics don't work. "The question I always have is, Is this election about something more than the two candidates?" said one GOP consultant who occasionally advises the McCain campaign. "Is Obama going to become the Reagan of the Democratic Party? If that's the case, [McCain] will have good weeks ... but in the end, structurally it's just, 'I like the [McCain], his service has been tremendous, but I'm just voting Democratic this year.'" If McCain's path to victory requires him to fight a Democratic wave, then milking a groundless rumor for a few extra seconds in the spotlight won't do him any good.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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