Republican Convention McCain's Bush-Style Campaign Worries the Center

McCain's popularity has long rested on his being a man of the center. The media liked him for his openness. Now, though, McCain has hired a number of former Bush advisors, and his campaign is swerving to the right.

On Tuesday evening in St. Paul, it almost seemed as though the Republicans didn't want to see the end of the Bush era. Just before 7:30 p.m., applause began rippling through the XCel Center. In the Fox News studio, just under the arena's rafters, President George W. Bush's former chief strategist Karl Rove had sat down for an interview. One row of delegates after another stood up, turned toward Rove and waved excitedly. Rove waved graciously back.

President George W. Bush on the big screen at McCain's convention.

President George W. Bush on the big screen at McCain's convention.

Foto: AFP

A couple of minutes later, the delegates on the floor began clapping again -- this time for former President George H. W. Bush. And then it was the turn of First Lady Laura Bush, who climbed onto the stage amid even louder applause and assured the crowd that her husband George W. still loves America even after eight years in the Oval Office. After that, the president himself flickered onto the gigantic screen hanging in the arena, linked in from the White House.

Bush began presidentially, and spoke about the victims of Hurricane Gustav in America's South. But then he turned to the subject of John McCain -- and immediately transformed himself into a campaigner. McCain, he said, is a "great American" who is "ready to lead."

"If the Hanoi Hilton could not break John McCain's resolve to do what is best for his country, you can be sure the angry left never will," Bush intoned. A new wave of cheering broke over the hall.

The fiery speech seemed like a passing of the baton from Bush to McCain -- even if the Republican candidate's campaign team is relieved that Hurricane Gustav prevented the president from attending the convention in person. McCain, after all, is eager to avoid the impression that he is a politician in the Bush mold.

And yet, McCain's campaign is beginning to tell a different story. The Senator from Arizona is borrowing heavily from Bush's strategy and style. Time Magazine, which brought out a special issue for the Republican Convention, wrote that McCain has perfected the Bush-style campaign.

It is a shift directed by those who will never be seen on the stage at St. Paul -- strategists like Steve Schmidt, for example. Schmidt was responsible for Bush's so-called "war room" and he is known for his quick-hitting attacks on the Democrats. Known as "The Bullet," the 37-year-old Schmidt was promoted in July to oversee campaign strategy and operations. One of the first things he did was to tell McCain that if he didn't become more disciplined, he would never be able to win the election in November.

Since then, McCain's campaign has become much more aggressive, airing television spots that, for example, refer to Barack Obama as a mere "celebrity" and compare him to stars such as Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. He has also narrowly focused the campaign's message and it is one that McCain has been doing his best to follow: "Country First." The shift in direction has already shown results. Despite the successful Democratic national convention last week, McCain hardly dropped at all in the polls.

Still, McCain's "Bush campaign" has some Republicans worried as their own convention gets rolling. Schmidt and his team were able to come up with a highly professional reaction to Hurricane Gustav and could present McCain as a decisive manager in times of crisis. They were also able to show their party as one which had learned from Bush's Hurricane Katrina debacle.

But at the same time, the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain's vice presidential candidate was one which came as a surprise to the Republicans -- and a not entirely pleasant one for moderates within the party. Since then, it has become clear just how spontaneous the decision was. The last two days have been dominated by coverage of Palin's pregnant, unmarried 17-year-old daughter, her lack of experience and her extremely conservative views on environmental issues.

Indeed, the choice of the ultra-conservative governor of Alaska seems little more than a poorly disguised gambit to get the religious right behind McCain. It is a clear signal that two other possibilities that had been considered by McCain -- the former Democrat Joe Lieberman and the ex-head of Homeland Security Tom Ridge -- were unacceptable due to their pro-choice positions.

And choosing Palin could work out for McCain, in the short term at least. Every mention of her name at the convention, dominated as it is by conservative Republicans, has been cascaded with applause. But the move could also undermine McCain's image as a centrist politician, an image that has so far allowed him to maintain a level of popularity far higher than that of a Republican Party damaged by the unpopularity of the Bush administration.

Campaign á la Bush Frightens the Center

It is an image that carried McCain to the nomination -- and it is one that would be dangerous to abandon before November. Matthew Dowd, who served as the chief strategist for Bush's 2004 re-election campaign, believes that McCain can't just focus on the Republican base, as Bush was able to, but must also pull votes from the center, where the Democrats currently have more appeal than the Republicans do.

A Bush-style campaign could very well scare off these centrist voters. Still, that's the direction McCain has been headed over the past weeks and months. His embrace of tax cuts as well as his stumping for offshore oil drilling have both made him look dangerously like a continuation of the administration of his predecessor.

And he's let himself be pried away from the press by Schmidt -- a fairly radical about-face for the former media darling. He used to give impromptu responses to reporters' questions, but now McCain is more likely to stiffly read out prepared statements. In this week's issue, Time magazine published a bizarre interview with McCain in which he responded to questions by loudly and angrily barking: "Read my books!"

On Tuesday, McCain cancelled a scheduled appearance on the CNN show Larry King Live because he was upset about the way another CNN host, Campbell Brown, aggressively questioned a McCain spokesman called Tucker Bounds on the foreign policy credentials of Sarah Palin.

Schmidt was also unhappy about the media's handling of Palin when it came to the news that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. "It used to be that a lot of those smears and the crap on the Internet stayed out of the newsrooms of serious journalists," he seethed, as if journalists had made up the story themselves. Lines like that find a welcome audience in the Republican base, which takes great pleasure in ranting about the alleged liberal conspiracy of the US media.

But McCain, if he wants to court the center, will need the media. Instead, he has angered them. The cover of the US edition of the Economist urges: "Bring back the real McCain." The Washington Post notes its disappointment, saying: "The steady, straight-talking, country-first statesman his campaign has been selling is a fictional character."

Election expert Joe Klein is appalled by the fact that McCain's campaign payroll now includes the former Bush strategists who contrived the dirty tricks that helped Bush steal the nomination from McCain during the 2000 Republican primaries. And this despite the fact that, back then, McCain said that he would refrain from fighting back with similarly dirty tricks.

The bitterest example of this, of course, was when people working for the Bush campaign made phone calls to South Carolina voters in which they insinuated that the black child McCain had adopted from Bangladesh was actually his own bastard child. McCain raged against the "smear campaign" and Tucker Eskew, the political consultant allegedly behind it.

Last week, McCain announced the hiring of a new advisor for his campaign against Obama. His name: Tucker Eskew.

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