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Rough race takes toll on McCain image

John McCain, shown campaigning on Oct. 26, 2008, is seen as a reliable supporter of Israel and recognizing that Islamic fanaticism is the obstacle to Mideast peace. (Steve Terrell / Creative Commons)

John McCain, shown campaigning on Oct. 26, 2008, is seen as a reliable supporter of Israel and recognizing that Islamic fanaticism is the obstacle to Mideast peace. (Steve Terrell / Creative Commons)

NEW YORK (JTA) – When John McCain stopped in New York one Tuesday in October 2007 to make his pre-primaries pitch to a room full of Jewish bigwigs, he spent virtually all his time discussing foreign policy – but only after an emotional introduction from James Tisch that focused less on policy than the character of the presidential candidate standing before them.

Tisch, a scion of a family real estate empire, proud Republican and decorated Jewish communal leader, invoked the memory of the late Washington power lawyer David Ifshin and his unlikely friendship with McCain.

Back when McCain was a prisoner of war being held and tortured by the North Vietnamese, Ifshin – then a hard-core anti-war protester – visited Hanoi to speak out against U.S. involvement in the war. His remarks were piped into McCain’s cell.

A few years later, the story goes, Ifshin found himself living on a kibbutz in Israel when the Yom Kippur War erupted. Watching U.S. aircraft arrive with supplies to aid the beleagured country triggered a transformation in Ifshin that would culminate with his becoming a lawyer for AIPAC and then the Clinton administration.

Along the way, after McCain had entered the U.S. Congress, Ifshin sought out the Republican lawmaker and asked his forgiveness.The two became friends and worked together on human rights causes.

“It was,” Tisch told the 50 people assembled, “an inspiration for many of us.”

And, one could reasonably add, a powerful example of why – before the twists and turns of an increasingly bitter presidential race – McCain commanded respect in Democratic and liberal circles. To be sure, the veteran Arizona senator has always been a staunch conservative on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues. But when it comes to grand themes – his emphasis on personal redemption, reconciliation, bipartisanship, sacrifice – McCain’s message has resonated across party lines.

It is true that in the heat of the race, McCain’s “Country First” campaign slogan can sound to the Democratic ear like a swipe at the patriotism of the opposing ticket. But when voicing the fuller version – when grounding his commitment to country in his realization in a Vietnam prison camp that the greatest fulfillment in life is serving a cause greater than one’s self – McCain could be mistaken for John F. Kennedy urging a new generation to embrace the notion of putting service to country first.

Just as important in understanding McCain’s initial appeal among Democrats, independents and the mainstream media is his willingness to work with liberal stalwarts – Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance – and his willingness to criticize conservative efforts to demonize politcal opponents.

During his own failed bid for the 2000 Republican nomination, McCain lashed out at the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance” after they lined up behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

And on Election Night in 2002, while others in his party  were celebrating big Republican gains, McCain was on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart lamenting the defeat of Democrat Max Cleland in Georgia. It was not the first time that McCain tore into the GOP over its strategy of questioning the patriotism of Cleland, a fellow veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.

It was not so long ago, in other words, that McCain was known for palling around with liberal East Coast media elites and being a target of some evangelical leaders and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.

In recent weeks, however, as McCain ratcheted up his attacks on Obama, he has found himself being accused of embracing the same dirty campaign tactics that he has so often criticized. McCain’s detractors argue that his reputation for straight talk is no longer deserved, pointing to ads suggesting that Obama wants to teach kindergarten students how to have sex and accusing him of associating with domestic terrorists.

Even several Republican lawmakers and McCain’s own running mate have joined Democrats in criticizing his campaign’s recent strategy of flooding the phone lines in swing states with anti-Obama robo-calls.

Democrats have also taken aim at McCain’s status as a maverick, increasingly painting him as a clone of President Bush when it comes to the economy and foreign policy. They note that the candidate has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers who back the Iraq war and oppose robust diplomatic intiatives with Syria and Iran.

Despite McCain’s opposition to abortion rights, as well as the mounting assertions that he has betrayed his reputation as a straight-shooting maverick, the Republican nominee had seemed poised to make serious inroads among Jewish voters. Polls for months showed McCain already surpassing the 25 percent of the Jewish vote that Bush took in 2004, with plenty of undecideds still up for grabs.

Undoubtedly, McCain received a boost from his reputation for bipartisanship and bucking religious conservatives, his long record of support for Israel, tough talk on Iran, a prominent endorsement from U.S. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and lingering questions about Barack Obama.

While Jewish GOPers have attempted to paint Obama as someone who might end up tilting toward the Palestinian side in the peace process, McCain has focused more on Iran and Iraq in attempting to challenge Obama’s preparedness to lead on the Middle East. McCain has pounded again and again on Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iran’s president, and argued that Obama’s timeline for a pullout from Iraq would threaten Israel and the United States.

“Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the United States, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran,” McCain told thousands of pro-Israel activists in June. “We must not let this happen.”

One of his key advisers on such issues is Lieberman, who crossed party lines to endorse the McCain shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Even before the endorsement, Lieberman had infuriated many Democrats with his unflinching support for the Iraq war and decision to carry on with a third-party bid after losing Connecticut’s Democratic senatorial primary in 2006.

In the process, however, his stature seemed to grow within centrist and right-leaning pro-Israel circles, and he still can draw a crowd at Florida retirement communities that remember him fondly as the first Jewish vice-presidential candidate.

“From the moment the next president steps into the Oval Office, he or she will face life-or-death decisions in this war,” Lieberman told a Republican Jewish Coalition crowd in January during a stop in Boca Raton shortly before the GOP primary in Florida. “That’s why we need a president who is ready to be commander-in-chief from day one, a president who won’t need any on-the-job training. John McCain is that candidate and will be that president.”

It was one of the first of many appearances that Lieberman would make in the Sunshine State and in front of Jewish audiences on behalf of McCain.

But Lieberman has emerged as more than a surrogate. The Connecticut senator is a trusted adviser and has become a regular travel buddy joining McCain on many of his campaign trips, as well as his visit in late May to Iraq, Jordan and Israel.

It was Lieberman who quietly pulled McCain to the side during a news conference in Jordan, prompting the candidate to correct his mistaken assertion that Iran was training members of al-Qaida. And it was Lieberman who was dispatched by the McCain campaign to brief reporters after Obama and McCain both delivered solidly pro-Israel speeches at the AIPAC policy conference in June.

Soon after, in the weeks leading up to the Republican convention, speculation was rampant that McCain wanted to tap Lieberman as his running mate – a move that some observers say would have helped the Republican nominee with many Jewish undecideds. But according to some reports, warnings from prominent Republican strategists that the selection of a pro-choice quasi-Democrat would trigger a conservative revolt ultimately led McCain to settle on the surprise choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

(Lieberman is said to remain on the short list for either secretary of state or secretary of defense in a McCain administration.)

From the start, the McCain camp appeared bent on underscoring Palin’s pro-Israel bona fides. Her first meeting at the convention was a closed-door session with leaders of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The Republican Jewish Coalition circulated a video clip showing a small Israeli flag displayed in her office in Alaska.

Palin herself took up the task of speaking out against Iran and defending Israel’s right to defend itself. Like McCain, she did so while also voicing support for a two-state solution, saying during the vice-presidential debate that it would be a “top priority.”

Ultimately, however, it appears that attempts to paint her as unqualified and a product of the religious right have been successful. A survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee in early September found that 54 percent of American Jews disapproved of the Palin choice, compared to just 15 percent who felt that way about Obama’s selection of U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.).

Increasing unhappiness with Palin, along with the economic crisis, has coincided with a drop in the polls for McCain, both in the general electorate and among Jewish voters. New polling data from Gallup released Oct. 23 shows Obama winning 74 percent of the Jewish vote. Of course, even more alarming for the McCain camp is the overwhelming majority of surveys showing him trailing nationally and on the state-by-state map.

And if a signifcant defeat were not enough, McCain’s critics appear ready to carry on the fight beyond Election Day.

“Back in 2000, after John McCain lost his mostly honorable campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, he went about apologizing to journalists – including me – for his most obvious misstep: his support for keeping the Confederate flag on the state house” in South Carolina, Time magazine columnist Joe Klein recalled in a recent blog post titled “Apology Not Accepted.”

“I just can’t wait for the moment when John McCain – contrite and suddenly honorable again in victory or defeat – talks about how things got a little out of control in the passion of the moment,” he added. “Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.”

This view is the overwhelming verdict among liberal bloggers as they rush to permanently redefine the real McCain as a dishonorable fraud, and it is gaining ground among media pundits and Democratic officials. In fact, the attempts at McCain revisionism during this presidential cycle go back to at least 2006, when he faced criticism for accepting an invitation from Falwell to speak at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.

Liberal bloggers ripped into McCain, pointing to the speech and the accompanying sit-down with Falwell as proof that the Arizonan was set to sell out his principles to win the GOP nomination in 2008.

But taken together with separate addresses McCain delivered in New York a few days later to students at Columbia College and the New School, the speech at Liberty could just as easily be seen as reinforcing the image of McCain as someone willing to cross lines and build bridges. After all, how many other presidential candidates could boast of such a trifecta, especially in one week?

In all three speeches, McCain argued for vigorous debate – and mutual respect. To help make the point, during his Columbia speech, McCain reflected on his relationship with Ifshin.

“I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy but my countryman … and later my friend,” McCain reportedly said.

“His friendship honored me. We disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our shared ideals,” he said. “David remained my countryman and my friend until the day of his death, at the age of 47, when he left a loving wife and three beautiful children, and legions of friends behind him. His country was a better place for his service to her, and I had become a better man for my friendship with him. God bless him.”

If nothing else, for anyone paying attention, McCain’s willingness to bury the political hatchet with Falwell should have seemed perfectly in character.

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