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'Maverick' McCain now plays to the base

Behind in the polls, Sen. John McCain has 10 days left to turn the tide his way.

Behind in the polls, Sen. John McCain has 10 days left to turn the tide his way.

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Warming up the crowd in a chilly hockey rink one morning last week, Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, seemed to be channeling a spirit from the past.

"Maverick! Maverick! Maverick!" he chanted, and the crowd joined in. "Mav-RICK! Mav-RICK! Mav-RICK."

Back in January, during the Republican primary, New Hampshire was a fountain of renewal for Sen. John McCain of Arizona, one of America's most iconic politicians and, at times, one of its most respected.

At freewheeling town-hall meetings across the state, John McCain clawed his way back into the race by highlighting his willingness to buck his party on nettlesome issues like global warming, immigration, and campaign finance reform.

The usual route to the Republican nomination is to play to the base. But with voters fed up with President Bush and nasty, partisan politics, McCain argued the Republicans' best hope of winning the swing voters needed to hold the White House was to nominate him, the "maverick."

New Hampshire agreed, setting a course that led McCain to his party's nomination.

Now McCain is down again, fighting for ground he should already have won in states like Virginia, Indiana, North Carolina, Colorado and New Hampshire, where earlier polls put him ahead.

"The people of New Hampshire make their own decisions, and more than once, they've ignored the polls and the pundits, and brought me across the finish line first," McCain told about 1,200 cheering fans after Cullen introduced him at Saint Anselm College last week.

Yet rather than sell the record of independence and bipartisanship that got him there, McCain's campaign these days is principally on the attack, eager to capitalize on lingering concerns about Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's readiness to lead while warning he would take money from hard-working regular Joes and "redistribute the wealth" for his liberal priorities.

• • •

At a millworking factory in Bensalem, Pa., in suburban Philadelphia, workers this week moved equipment and wood and swept up the sawdust as best they could.

On a platform behind the lectern where McCain will speak, a dapper young aide wearing a red bow tie distributes hand-painted posters featuring the campaign's favorite catch phrases — Drill Baby Drill, Mac is Back, I am Joe Plumber— among the 100 or so regular Joes chosen to serve as the backdrop for McCain's speech.

Once McCain takes the stage, he gets right to work and so does his crowd. They boo the national media for having "written us off." They boo Obama for acting as if he's already won, and for allegedly attacking Joe the Plumber.

"After months of campaign eloquence, we finally learned what Sen. Obama's plan is — as he told Joe, he wants to spread the wealth around," McCain said. "Sen. Obama is more interested in controlling who gets your piece of the pie than he is with growing the pie."

After striking, McCain tends to step back from the lectern and grin while the crowd cheers, the boxer admiring his work. He stepped back to the mike. "It isn't a tax cut," he continued. "It's another government giveaway, and we've got enough of them already!"

When he finished the speech and waded into the crowd, shaking hands, the aide took the posters back from the Joes and put them back on the bus for the next stop. Different city, same message. He says that's way better than having to repaint them every night.

"It took me like five rallies before I realized I could do that," he said.

• • •

The race for the White House has been filled with charges and accusations of bad judgment since the beginning, of course, and Obama indeed has hit McCain, unfairly characterizing his positions on immigration and stem cell research, among others.

But there is little doubt that now, as the Nov. 4 election nears, McCain predominately is on the attack. The shift began in earnest in late August, just before the Republican National Convention, when he picked Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate. The folksy mother of five galvanized the conservative Republican base, which had been wary of McCain's past independence, and has brought energy and edge to the campaign.

"If you don't want your dreams dashed by the Obama tax increase and if you don't like the way our opponent has trashed the guy just because he asked a simple question, then you're Joe the Plumber, too," Palin told thousands of fans at a high school football stadium while campaigning with McCain near Akron, Ohio, this week.

But rather than let Palin swing the bat for the right while he worked for voters in the middle, McCain seemed to follow her lead. And he's kept at it, even as Palin's popularity has sunk in the polls, and even as some prominent Republicans have endorsed Obama and repudiated his tactics, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

"He'll say anything to get elected," McCain roared to a crowd at Allstar Building Materials in Ormond Beach on Thursday.

"Give him hell, John, give him hell!" a man in the crowd yelled.

"As Joe and small business owners across the country have now reminded us all, America didn't become the greatest nation on earth by giving the government money to spread the wealth around," McCain said.

"Socialist!" another man yelled.

McCain's campaign advisers say focus groups and their own private polls show McCain's warning about wealth distribution is sinking in, and they plan to carry the theme through election day.

• • •

It may well work, especially among working-class white voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and other swing states who lean Democratic, but have yet to fully embrace Obama. But recent polls show that rather than propelling McCain, the aggressive tactics — like Palin — are dragging him down.

In the last month, several national polls have found that McCain's favorability ratings have dropped, while Obama's have risen, and McCain is losing support among the people his campaign used to attract better than anyone: independent voters.

In a new St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9/Miami Herald poll published Thursday, for instance, Obama now leads among independent Florida voters by a margin of 57 percent to 22 percent. A month ago, the poll found McCain leading in that group by 4 percentage points.

McCain himself denies that attacking Obama has become the centerpiece of his campaign. But in speeches, McCain rarely mentions the traditionally anti-Republican positions that helped earn his independent reputation during 26 years in Congress, from backing embryonic stem cell research to supporting pollution caps to slow global warming.

During an interview this week with several reporters in his bus, the Straight Talk Express, McCain turned most questions about his positions — on Social Security, the dismal housing market and his style of governing — into indictments of Obama.

"I have a long record of working in a bipartisan manner and Obama does not," McCain said. It is largely true. "And whenever there's a tough issue, he goes home to the liberal left. He started out in the left lane of American politics and he's stayed there."

The bus stopped. By day's end, McCain would see Richard the Florist, Bob the Boat Builder and Jim the Farm Market Owner.

Altamont Springs was next, and a visit with Gary the Dentist.

"The fact is Sen. Obama's plan for small business would hurt Dr. Coatoam and could force him to make additional layoffs, and that's just a fact," McCain said as Coatoam stood by. "Sen. Obama wants to, quote, spread the wealth. That's not good for America."

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.

'Maverick' McCain now plays to the base 10/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:55pm]

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