McCain Seeks To Define Himself and Obama

John McCain's efforts to define Barack Obama have been well cataloged in recent days, from the substantive (calling Obama a tax raiser slow to offer an energy plan) to the silly (comparing the Illinois senator to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton).

John McCain and his political advisor John Weaver (left).
Stephan Savoia
John McCain and his political advisor John Weaver (left).

What's less apparent are McCain's efforts to define himself.

The GOP presidential hopeful has adopted a new campaign slogan, "Country First," a paean to his years in the military and decades in Congress. He's begun speaking more openly about his years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. And despite his wealth and elite legacy as the scion of admirals, McCain has tried to cast himself the embodiment of middle-class, middle-American values.

The new effort was in full swing Thursday, when he spoke at a town hall meeting in northwestern Ohio.

"This is the heartland of America!" McCain proclaimed repeatedly, saying there is no more patriotic part of the country.

The Arizona senator then repeated his usual litany of complaints about Obama, warning, "We don't need another politician in Washington who puts self-interest and political expediency ahead of problem solving." But in closing, McCain offered supporters a more personal glimpse into his own history.

"I will always, always, always put my country first. I have done that from the time I was in prison and was offered a chance to go home before my comrades," McCain said, explaining that he refused to leave because the military code of conduct said prisoners must leave in order of capture.

"I put my country first then and will continue to put country first," he said.

It's a new twist on a time-honored GOP strategy for McCain, who continues to trail Obama in national and most state battleground polls.

For years, Republican presidential candidates have successfully cast their Democratic rivals as big spenders and out-of-touch elitists, an approach McCain is heartily embracing this time. Among other things, he's mocked Obama's popularity in Europe while his campaign manager has noted the Illinois senator's fondness for protein bars and organic tea.

But McCain has not established a recognizable personal identity. President Bush was already a well-defined figure in his own right in 2004 when he began making mincemeat of rival John Kerry's alleged policy flip-flops and penchant for windsurfing.

McCain's aides said their polling indicates voters have a generally favorable impression of McCain, but know little about his biography or life story. So he's begun retelling that history, using it as a double-edged weapon to cast himself as a selfless patriot and Obama as shallow.

Hence the "country first" slogan, which has gradually supplanted McCain's earlier theme of "Reform, Prosperity and Peace." Asked if the campaign was suggesting McCain puts country first while Obama puts himself first, senior adviser Charlie Black replied, "That's a fair characterization."

In a statement, Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan said, "While there's no doubt Senator McCain has served his country with honor, the agenda he's supported over the last eight years has not served the nation as well."

Many other Democrats believe McCain has put his heroic personal tale to use in a way that differs little from past GOP efforts to frame the Democratic Party's presidential hopefuls as unpatriotic and weak.

"I don't think it's about John McCain. It's about making Obama different, foreign, other," said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who saw his former client, Kerry, wither under a hazing at the hands of Karl Rove and others on Bush's political team.

Shrum called McCain's strategy "warmed-over Rovian stew" unlikely to be effective this year. "These people are running a bad version of the last campaign — 2008 is not 2004," he said.

The examples McCain uses are telling.

He often speaks of his early support last year for sending an additional 30,000 troops to Iraq, a relatively lonely position at the time and one many analysts predicted would cost him the election. His willingness to stand for a once-unpopular position showed he put patriotism over self-interest, McCain argues.

"I said at that time I would much rather lose a political campaign than lose a war. Senator Obama took a different path," McCain told supporters in Cincinnati. "He doesn't understand this isn't a political issue."

The matter of McCain's incarceration in Vietnam is complicated, placing him on rhetorical ground he has claimed in the past he'd prefer not to exploit.

A former Naval aviator, McCain was shot down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam in 1967 and held as a prisoner of war until 1973. He was repeatedly tortured and turned down early release.

McCain has written a best-selling memoir that include vivid descriptions of his experiences in Vietnam, but has generally been reticent about discussing the matter on the trail.

That's changed markedly in recent days.

His tale of refusing early release has become a staple of his stump speech. Visiting football practice Wednesday at Marshall University in West Virginia, McCain told the players he'd learned the value of teamwork during his incarceration.

"When we didn't work as a team they broke us down ... we were a team and we had leaders," he said.

His campaign has also broadcast two biographical television ads in the last two months, although neither is currently on the air. Aides say another biographical ad will likely debut after the Republican convention next month.

The double-edged use of his history was on display in one of the biographical ads aired earlier this summer. It described McCain's experience in Vietnam and contrasted it with images of the so-called Summer Of Love — hippie slang for the summer of 1967.

"Half a world away, another kind of love, of country. John McCain: Shot down. Bayoneted. Tortured." the ad said, implicitly tying the 47-year old Obama to the 60s-era culture wars even though he was only six years old in 1967.

An analysis by the Wisconsin Advertising Project found that over 90 percent of the ads Obama has aired in the last two months are positive, not mentioning McCain by name. Approximately a third of the McCain's are negative, drawing contrasts between himself and Obama.

EDITOR'S NOTE _ Beth Fouhy covers presidential politics for The Associated Press