McCain bets on the road less traveled

Times Staff Writer

This week, when Barack Obama campaigns in Ohio and Colorado, John McCain will be visiting Colombia and Mexico. It’s an unusual path for McCain to follow. But even more, it’s a risky strategy for his presidential campaign.

Not since Richard M. Nixon traveled to all 50 states in 1960, fulfilling a pledge he came to regret, has a presidential candidate followed an itinerary that appears so at odds with his political needs.

For starters, and most obviously, there are no electoral votes to be had in Latin America or Canada, another country McCain recently visited. Even more puzzling to observers is McCain’s emphasis on national security and foreign affairs -- Saturday he met with the leaders of Iraq and the Philippines -- at a time when domestic matters have surged to the fore of voter concerns.

“You can’t shoehorn in an issue the American people aren’t focused on every day at their kitchen table,” said Matthew Dowd, who ran President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, which centered on fighting terrorism at a time when Sept. 11 was far more resonant. “The danger is you miss being where people are at.”


On Saturday, Obama announced his own foreign tour, a trip to Europe and the Middle East. There are risks for the Illinois senator, if he seems cocky or his journey takes on the air of a victory lap. But the trip makes sense politically, addressing a gap in Obama’s resume.

McCain is attempting something far more difficult: driving the campaign in a direction that voters, at least for now, don’t wish to go.

Strategists for the Arizona senator believe a big asset is his image as a strong leader who will keep America safe. Even with a mortgage crisis, rising unemployment and soaring gas prices, that attribute matters a good deal, McCain aides say. Moreover, they insist, most voters don’t make the same domestic-vs.-foreign policy distinctions as political pundits.

Mark Salter, a senior McCain advisor, noted that the candidate had just finished a week-and-a-half campaign swing devoted to energy policy, telling audiences that ending the U.S. dependence on foreign oil was just as important for the country’s economic interests as for its national security. “These things are always related,” Salter said.

So when McCain sits down with foreign leaders to talk about terrorism, the thinking goes, it helps voters envision him as commander in chief. When he travels to Colombia and Mexico, it highlights his record as a free trader and his moderation on immigration and, perhaps, garners favorable publicity in the Latino community back home.

But that strategy has provoked consternation and confusion among some fellow Republicans. There is, after all, the cautionary lesson of 1992, when President George H.W. Bush lost his reelection bid. One big reason was that voters believed Bush -- who was partial to foreign policy -- was less attuned to their pocketbook pain than was his more domestic-minded opponent, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

That campaign, not incidentally, was the last time the economy played such a large role in a presidential election. In a worrisome sign for McCain, surveys show that economic issues again top the political agenda, with most voters saying Obama would do a better job addressing healthcare, record gas prices, even taxes -- usually a GOP strong suit -- than McCain.

Part of Obama’s advantage may be Democrats’ image as the more compassionate party. Some of it may be McCain’s clumsiness (or honesty); during the primary season he confessed to being less conversant on economic issues than on defense and national security matters, words that Democrats have gleefully thrown back at him. The biggest part may be guilt by association; many blame the current President Bush for the tough economic times and assume that McCain will continue his policies, with the same results, for another four years.


Whatever the reason, those underlying attitudes make it all the more imperative for McCain to shift the debate over the next four months of campaigning. “If people are voting on economics, they’re going to vote Democratic,” said Floyd Ciruli, a nonpartisan pollster in Colorado, a state both candidates are targeting. “To win, Republicans have to focus this election on national security.”

It is unclear, however, whether that issue -- which helped keep the GOP in the White House for the better part of 28 years -- still plays as strongly to the party’s benefit.

When top McCain advisor Charlie Black recently said, after a reporter raised the issue, that a terrorist attack on the United States would be “a big advantage” for the Arizona senator, the reaction was swift: McCain disavowed the sentiment. Black apologized. Democrats howled with outrage.

But was Black correct? There is no way to know unless an attack occurs. The location, the perpetrators and, most especially, the timing would all be critical elements in determining the political consequences. But even the short-term response, a likely rallying around the president and the incumbent party, may not last.


“The truth is things have changed,” said Mark Mellman, a strategist for Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democrats’ 2004 nominee. Mellman suggested that a troika of issues -- the unpopular war in Iraq; the botched response to Hurricane Katrina; and the proposed sale of U.S. port operations to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which fell through in a storm of controversy -- has badly eroded GOP credibility on foreign policy and fighting terrorism. After the shock of an attack, Mellman said, “people might begin to say, ‘They told us the one thing they were able to do was protect us against terrorism. Now they’ve failed even that.’ ”

Black may have further undercut McCain’s advantage, Dowd suggested, by making such a crass political observation -- though all Black did was say publicly what many discuss in private. “Even though John McCain comes from a good place in his heart, everything he now says about terrorism will be viewed through a cynical filter,” Dowd said.

McCain’s greatest political strength has always been his reputation as someone willing to go his own way when principle demands. He started running for president in 2007 as a conventional candidate, and failed miserably. He reverted to a more freewheeling form and, against a weak field, rallied to win the GOP nomination.

For good or ill, McCain is clearly determined to wage a different sort of general-election campaign, even if it leads him far from the well-trod path or away from the issues voters say they care most about. It may be unconventional. But given voters’ contempt for Washington, the Republican Party and the incumbent president, it might be McCain’s best chance of winning.




Times staff writer Maeve Reston contributed to this report.