McCain has diluted his rare reputation


John McCain once had the most powerful brand in American politics.

He was often called the country's most popular politician and widely admired for his independent streak. It wasn't too many years ago that "maverick" was the cliche of choice in describing him.

But that term didn't even make the list this year when voters were asked by the Pew Research Center to sum up McCain in a single word. "Old" got the most mentions, followed by "honest," "experienced," "patriot," "conservative" and a dozen more. The words "independent," "change" or "reformer" weren't among them.

Voters have notoriously short memories, but it could be argued that McCain cheapened his own brand.

He embraced President Bush and attempted to become, like Bush, the choice of the Republican establishment. In the process, he helped obliterate recollections of his first run for president, when he became the first Republican in a long time with strong crossover appeal to independents and Democrats.

Losing his reputation for independence could prove particularly costly this year.

The current campaign environment is among "the worst in modern history for Republicans," McCain campaign manager Rick Davis said recently.

Simply driving up turnout by the Republican base - a strategy good enough to win the past two presidential elections - won't work as long as Democrats continue to hold a double-digit advantage in party identification. Instead, McCain's chances of becoming president will depend largely on his ability to persuade independents and disaffected Democrats to back him over Barack Obama.

"The most important thing that McCain can do in this campaign is reoccupy that change and reform territory," says Todd Harris, who worked for McCain in 2000 but isn't on his campaign payroll now.

McCain's popularity peaked in 2004, about the time he threw his energy into re-electing Bush, according to the polls. Last week, McCain's negatives among registered voters hit an all-time high of 34 percent in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey. Voters who don't like McCain are, by an overwhelming margin, rejecting his political beliefs, not the kind of person he is, a recent Pew poll found.

McCain will be running as the nominee of the incumbent party in the White House, with the U.S. economy in distress, Bush's job rating in the toilet and the sourest public mood in at least 20 years.

"It's tough," McCain said in an NBC interview last week, when asked how hard it is to be the Republican candidate. "But I think the American people didn't get to know me yesterday. They know me."

In some places, that's still true. One is New Hampshire. It's McCain's "second home state," his campaign manager said, scene of McCain's pivotal primary victory last winter and perhaps his best chance to flip a state that went Democratic in 2004 back to the Republicans.

"Here, his brand is very strong," said Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in the state who backed Mitt Romney in the primaries. "They trust him and they know him."

But New Hampshire may be an exception to the problem McCain faces nationally.

For many voters, his image today is as an outspoken defender of an unpopular war in Iraq and a supporter of Bush's economic policies, including the tax cuts that McCain voted against in the Senate but now promotes as a presidential candidate.

Interviews this spring with swing voters in primary states underscored the depth of McCain's challenge.

Even some of those who dislike Obama said they would not vote for McCain because it would be like giving Bush a third term.

That line is already an Obama staple and figures to remain at the center of the Democrat's argument until Election Day.

In the three months since McCain wrapped up the nomination, he has yet to project a consistent general election message, some Republicans say, and his campaign's efforts to rebrand him as an independent have been halting, at best.

McCain's first general election campaign commercial, which debuted recently in 11 battleground states, highlights his military background, rather than his political independence.

A McCain campaign adviser was privately critical of the ad, calling it a war-based appeal and arguing that McCain should be reaching out instead to disaffected supporters of Hillary Clinton, especially women.

In a much-criticized speech on the final night of the Democratic primary fight, McCain tried to highlight his policy differences with Bush. He attempted to remind voters of his record of standing up to fellow Republicans on issues such as global warming and stem-cell research, and his success working with Democrats on campaign finance and ethics reform.

Thanks to his campaign's ineptitude, however, that message reached almost no one. McCain began his speech late, and cable TV channels cut away during his remarks to break the news that Obama had clinched the nomination.

A decade ago, McCain's rise was assisted by his popularity among members of the news media, which he used to half-jokingly refer to as his base.

Today, Obama is the media favorite, with all the campaign money in the world and a gift for inspiring rhetoric. McCain is dragging the weight of Bush behind him and can no longer count on the media to help him do his work.

The latest national polling shows McCain within striking distance of Obama, in spite of the Democrat's perceived advantages. But that, paradoxically, may make it less likely that McCain will do what it takes to close the gap.

Winning the nomination, against all odds, is likely to have made McCain even more inclined than ever to trust his own instincts and dismiss unwelcome advice. So far, his campaign's inner circle has been slow to open up.

A one-man effort of heroic proportions - in particular, appearances at more than 100 town hall meetings in New Hampshire, a state that remembered him well - helped McCain defeat his primary rivals.

Restoring the McCain brand across the rest of America is likely to be much more difficult.

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