McCain Leans on His Past to Press Forward

Today in Iowa, McCain commemorated the 40th anniversary of his captivity.

February 18, 2009, 7:08 PM

Oct. 26, 2007 — -- On October 26, 1967, John McCain was killed.

Forty years ago today -- the first day of McCain's nearly 5¾ year incarceration in a North Vietnamese prison -- the right wing of the A-4 Skyhawk he was piloting was blown off by a surface-to-air missile. His fellow prisoners-of-war all refer to the day they got shot down and taken captive as "the day they were killed."

McCain broke both of his arms and his right knee ejecting from the plane. He was unconscious during the parachute ride to the ground, and when he landed it was in a lake in the center of Hanoi.

Now, four decades later, McCain is a candidate for president of the United States. The four-term Republican senator from Arizona commemorated the 40th anniversary of his captivity with fellow POW Col. Bud Day, whom McCain credits for keeping him alive in prison.

"Bud Day was the most steadfast, most inspirational and toughest of anybody," McCain said. "That gave him a steadfastness and inspirational leadership that allowed us to do things we otherwise would never have been capable of."

For McCain, his tenure as a POW -- and the hero status it accorded him -- was not, until recently, a major part of his day to day political campaigning. It was the story everyone knew so well it did not need to be told, the history that was referenced by those around McCain but never mentioned by the candidate himself.

McCain referenced past presidential candidates and spoke of pride in service.

"Sen. Bob Dole -- who ran for president, and I was part of his campaign -- he was very proud of his service to the country. Jack Kennedy was very proud of his service," McCain said. "Those of us who served in uniform, in the military, are usually very proud of our service."

But McCain's presidential campaign has fallen on tough times.

Initially considered the clear front-runner for the GOP nomination, McCain is now behind in national polls, and trails in the early primary states as well. And McCain isn't raising as much money as he'd planned, having been hurt by his positions on the Iraq War and the controversial immigration bill he supported.

In recent weeks, the campaign has turned back to McCain's service. In September, a video describing his time in prison was played before every campaign event, followed by television and radio ads in New Hampshire reminding voters of McCain as a war fighter.

Earlier this week, the McCain camp sent a fundraising e-mail to supporters tied to the 40-year POW anniversary.

"He has given so much -- join me in giving him a gift of $50, $100, $250, $500, $1,000 or even $2,300 in remembrance of his past service to all of us and in support of a future McCain presidency," McCain's campaign manager wrote.

A new campaign ad in New Hampshire paired McCain's military service with a jab at Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton for her support of $1 million in taxpayer funds toward a Woodstock musuem in upstate New York.

In it, McCain references his time as a POW, saying he was "tied up" at the time of the legendary rock concert in 1969, which he describes in tongue-in-cheek overtones as a "cultural and pharmaceutical event."

Even the candidate's rhetoric on the stump has changed, though he still finds himself unsteady on the tone of his POW references. McCain mentions his time in prison -- sometimes jokingly, but sometimes seriously -- describing what it was like to come home after his time in prison to a country broken over Vietnam.

But with short months left till the primary season, for his campaign to have a fighting chance in an ever-crowded presidential field, McCain will have to find the right tone and lean on his past in order to move forward.

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