McCain unlikely to curb 'straight talk' approach anytime soon

But as the likely GOP nominee, he will face more scrutiny from Democrats.

John Sommers ii/Reuters
Campaigner: Senator John McCain (R) of Arizona spoke with BAE Systems plant employees on a presidential campaign stop in West Chester, Ohio, on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, the likely GOP presidential nominee John McCain told reporters on his campaign bus that if Americans don't believe US policy in Iraq is working, "then I lose, I lose."

Then he asked for a do-over. "If I may, I'd like to retract 'I lose,' " he said, according to press reports. But he did acknowledge Iraq's role in his November chances: "Clearly, I am tied to it to a large degree."

This is a new world for the Arizona senator, being at the top of the heap, where every utterance is a potential headline and the risks to himself and his party are enormous. For most of Senator McCain's time as a presidential candidate, in both the 2000 and 2008 campaigns, he has been an insurgent, down in the polls and relishing the freedom to say what he thinks. The all-day rolling press conferences on board his campaign bus have become legendary. McCain has often joked that the press is his "base," and journalists have at times saved him by not publishing a profane comment or off-color joke.

For now, the ride-alongs with McCain continue, but whether his campaign will allow that as the general election campaign starts is an open question.

"Sometimes the Straight Talk Express is going to skid on the road," says Jack Pitney, a political analyst at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Riding with journalists "is a trade off," he continues. "On the one hand, spending time with journalists means he gets a lot of good press. On the downside, he'll expose himself to criticism, and the more you talk, the more likely you are to say something damaging."

McCain is also finding that, as the likely GOP nominee, the files of opposition research being amassed by the Democrats will start to open. Press reports on his dealings with lobbyists will be a staple of coverage until election day. And as co-author of the most significant campaign finance reform since the 1970s, McCain is under intense scrutiny for any hint of hypocrisy. As time passes, his relationship with the press is likely to get testier.

A piece on McCain published last week by The New York Times alleging the possibility of a romantic relationship with a lobbyist and going more broadly into McCain's ties to donors was roundly criticized in the media, including by the Times's own ombudsman. Ultimately, the piece ended up rallying most of McCain's high-profile conservative critics to his side – a feat he had not accomplished himself. But McCain's reaction to the piece, and a Washington Post story, which just discussed ties to lobbyists, demonstrated a potentially problematic tendency on McCain's part, analysts say.

McCain denied having met a campaign donor, Lowell Paxson, on whose behalf McCain had written letters to the Federal Communications Commission. But Mr. Paxson told the Post he met McCain. And Newsweek magazine found evidence, a 2002 deposition, that indicated McCain acknowledging having met Paxson. McCain also denied he ever had a conversation with the New York Times about its piece before publication, before being reminded that he had talked to the Times's executive editor.

McCain's impulse to issue flat denials or broad assertions is a tendency he will have to curb as the Republican nominee, analysts say. But people who know McCain question whether he can do so. "When you're talking about who he is as an individual, I don't think that will change," says Bruce Merrill, a pollster at Arizona State University.

The irony for McCain is that it's his shoot-from-the-hip style that is a big part of his appeal to voters, particularly independents, whose support he needs this fall. He could fall flat if overly muzzled.

But some Republicans believe that the New York Times piece innoculated McCain from future such coverage on lobbyist ties. "By attacking McCain and having it boomerang on [the Times], it's going to make the next one a little more gun shy," says Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio. .

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