Lessons Learned

By Natalie Gewargis

Sep 10, 2008 4:35pm

ABC News’ Andy Fies reports: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., knows how ugly and even politically effective it is to be thought of as being like a pig.  It’s one of the many lessons he learned in 2000.

In a tense New York primary battle that year, then-Gov. George W. Bush ran a radio ad accusing McCain of being hostile to breast cancer research. Though Bush cited McCain’s Web site and criticism of certain “pork barrel” legislation to back his charge, it was not an accurate portrayal of his stand on the subject. It was also a very sensitive issue for McCain, since his sister had suffered from the disease.

He fiercely attacked Bush for the tactic: ”It really is what is so distasteful and unpleasant about politics, that the Bush campaign would run an ad saying I’m against funding for breast cancer research," McCain said. ”I’ve voted for it many times.” ("The 2000 Campaign: New York; Bush and McCain Battle for Support in High Stakes Territory," NYT 03/04/2000)

Bush’s reply suggested John McCain was acting a little porcine: “I don’t think the senator should be squealing about pork and then squealing when somebody disagrees with one of the cuts he wants to make.”

Could this stinging moment be in McCain’s head, eight years later, as his campaign persists in falsely saying that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., called Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a pig? 

Perhaps not.

But tactically, it is clear, and it has been frequently noted, that McCain learned well the lessons from his last run in 2000, with his courtship of the Republican base being the most obvious example.

Another example stands out since the Republican convention.

Rewind again to 2000 when McCain surprised everyone with a resounding win over George Bush in the New Hampshire primary. His success was based, in large part, on the "reformer" theme. He even proclaimed in his New Hampshire victory speech that the Republican Party had "recovered its heritage of reform."

So, how did his opponent, Bush, respond? By quickly seizing the reform theme as his own. Within days of his New Hampshire loss, Bush had shifted from "compassionate conservative" to "reformer with results." Banners and signs with the new slogan were everywhere in South Carolina, the primary that followed New Hampshire.

Certainly there was more to Bush’s South Carolina victory than latching onto McCain’s theme. But it was a very visible component of his winning strategy.

Now, McCain, who initially based his run on experience and preparedness, has almost wrestled the "change" theme from his opponent … the theme on which Obama has run for the past 20 months. He called attention to the strategy with one of the big applause lines of his convention speech: "Change is coming."

While the Arizona senator hasn’t gone so far as to print up placards trumpeting "change," he’s made it a prominent motif of his campaign and it seems to be working. According to the new ABC News/Washington Post poll, McCain has gained significantly on Obama as the one who would do more to change government. Obama’s 32-point lead on the question in June is now down to a 12-point advantage.

McCain may want to keep Bush at a distance … but not his tactics.

Perhaps Obama could learn something from McCain, circa 2000.  McCain didn’t take up the gauntlet of distortion thrown down by Bush … at least not to the same degree, and Obama has followed the same strategy, more or less. Then, McCain trusted that ”People will figure it out … And if they don’t figure it out, we’ll have run an honorable campaign.”

Look how far that got him eight years ago.

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