McCain hopes to follow in the footsteps of President Ronald Reagan as the oldest U.S. president to take office -- edging out Reagan by three years at age 72 -- and the only other divorcee.
He has campaigned to in many ways continue the Bush foreign policy.
Though McCain claims that a wide array of advisers -- including realist former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft -- has his ear, much of his rhetoric and record on the Iraq war and the "global war on terror" have a neo-conservative bent.
"I don't think, given where John has been for the last four or five years on the Iraq war and foreign policy issues, anyone would mistake Scowcroft for a close adviser," one of McCain's closest foreign policy advisers, Randy Scheunemann, told the New York Sun in 2006.
Scheunemann, president of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq -- a nongovernmental organization formed by a central neo-conservative think tank, Project for the New American Century, to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq -- also serves on the board of the International Republican Institute of which McCain has been the chairman since 1993.
The institute's mission statement reads like a precis of Bush's failed "Freedom Agenda," and critics have accused the institute of meddling improperly in other countries' affairs -- including the 2004 Haitian coup d'etat to overthrow the democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in which documents reveal that the International Republican Institute gave support to a pro-coup opposition faction.
As Romney's Conservative Political Action Conference speech acknowledged, McCain, informed by a 23-year career in the Navy -- five of which he spent as a prisoner of war and torture victim during the Vietnam War -- and a neo-con worldview, has presented himself as a militaristic national security candidate who can best keep the nation safe from "radical Islamic extremists."
Despite his public criticisms of how the Iraq war was handled and tepid questioning of the faulty intelligence that led the U.S. there, McCain has remained a hawk on the conflict throughout. He essentially staked his candidacy on the "surge" escalation and has benefited from its relative success.
"Make it a hundred," McCain told a questioner on the stump when asked about the potential for a 50-year occupation of Iraq. "That would be fine with me."
On Iran, McCain is equally hawkish. When asked about the Islamic Republic at a campaign stop last April, he jokingly sang the words "Bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb Iran" to the tune of the Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann."
"He's seeing the inevitability of war and conflict with Iran," said Steve Clemons, head of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, another Washington think tank. "He's been incredibly reckless when it comes to war and deploying the military power of the United States in various issues."
Other critics have raised similar concerns, often alluding to McCain's short fuse. Once on the floor of the Senate, McCain told Sen. Ted Kennedy to "shut up," and at a meeting in 1992 he called fellow Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley a "fucking jerk" in a confrontation that another senator present described as being on the verge of turning physical.
When instances of prisoner abuse and torture began to surface in the war on terror, McCain seemed to take the issue personally and quickly criticized the Bush administration. But when the Supreme Court rejected the Bush plan for detention, interrogation and secret trials for terrorism suspects, McCain rolled over under pressure from the right and supported the policies -- even condoning the suspension of habeas corpus.
McCain's re-emergence as a national frontrunner for the Republican ticket, however, still has its internal problems -- most notably the resistance of hard-line conservatives against his nomination. The resistance is being led by radio host Rush Limbaugh and Religious Right icon James Dobson in objection to McCain's wavering from some conservative principles, such as his opposition to an amendment to the constitution that would ban same-sex marriages.
In 2000, McCain referred to Religious Right leaders as "agents of intolerance," only later -- in anticipation of his presidential run -- to deliver the 2006 commencement address at the late Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in an effort to smooth over tensions with the powerful Republican Evangelical voting bloc.
But just as McCain's own party's base is rattled by his ascent, so, too, are his Democratic counterparts. Many members of the liberal party establishment view the McCain candidacy as the biggest threat in the general election.
"I was in these circles in 2006 with leading Democratic honchos who were scared of a McCain candidacy at that point," Clemons said. "I think they were relieved when they saw McCain's campaign explode, and I think they've been very disheartened to see him bring it back to such life."
McCain poses such a grave threat to the Democrats because in a general election, his maverick status is attractive to independent voters -- a group that now outnumbers either Democrats or Republicans -- as well as moderates from both parties.
McCain's reputation as that rare quantity -- the independent-minded politician -- comes from a prolific 20-year Senate career where he has not been afraid to break with party ranks.
Indeed, McCain has straddled the aisle on issues ranging from climate change to corruption. He supports stem cell research, has a pro-Hispanic immigrant stance, and has pushed improvements in broadband technology.
McCain has benefited greatly from the attention of the media generated by his positions -- even joking himself that the media is his base. But critics from the left often assail him as being simply that: a maverick only as created by the media.
One of McCain's hallmark achievements of conciliatory politics attacked by the right is his cosponsoring of campaign finance reform legislation with progressive Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin. But the anti-corruption measure was hardly a far left-wing position: It was passed a Republican congress and was, albeit reluctantly, signed into law by Bush.
Furthermore, McCain's involvement in the McCain-Feingold Act is viewed by some as a mea culpa of sorts for his entanglement in the Savings and Loan scandals of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
As savings and loan institutions collapsed from poor investing made after deregulation of the industry, McCain and four other senators -- known as the Keating Five -- were investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee for interfering improperly with the industry's regulatory body.
It was revealed that the five senators had received a total of $1.3 million from Charles Keating, Jr. -- the chairman of one of the institutions in question. The Ethics Committee criticized McCain for "questionable conduct."
Though McCain's reputation as a maverick precedes him everywhere he goes, it remains to be seen if this narrative will be preserved through what is sure to be a long and hard-fought general election.
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Albion Monitor February
12, 2008 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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