Meet '08 contender John McCain ... again

His week-long tour stresses his family's military service – and why it makes him fit to be president.

mary altaffer/ap
Out and about: Sen. John McCain (center) and his wife, Cindy, attended an air show at the McCain field on the Meridian Naval Air Station in Mississippi on Sunday.

John McCain is one of America's best-known politicians. In the latest Gallup favorability ratings for people in the news – a survey of all Americans, not just voters – the senior senator from Arizona clocks in at 67 percent favorable, 27 percent unfavorable, and 7 percent without an opinion. No one replied, "who's that?"

So why is the presumptive Republican presidential nominee taking a week to reintroduce himself to the American people, with special emphasis on his and his family's military service? Because as much as people think they know about Senator McCain, he wants to explain his story himself – and its relevance to why he believes he should be president.

"People know the basic contours of his life, but it's always good to fill in the profile before opponents do so," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence, R.I. "There's a classic strategy of [campaign] advertising in which you start with biography, then you move to the issue profile, then go on the attack. He's following the three-step program."

Since locking up the Republican nomination almost a month ago, McCain has been a secondary player in campaign coverage while Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama duke it out for the Democratic nomination. In some ways, life outside the spotlight has been a gift to McCain. If the Democrats already had a nominee, he or she would have pounded hard on McCain's apparent gaffe while in the Middle East, in which he stated that Iran was aiding Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Democratic nominee also would likely have spent more time skewering McCain over his housing foreclosure proposal, which offered less relief than even President Bush's.

But this week, on its "Service to America" tour, the McCain campaign has been playing offense, providing the media with a narrative rather than just policy prescriptions. On Monday, the former Vietnam prisoner of war addressed a rally in Meridian, Miss., near McCain airfield, which was named for his grandfather, a Navy admiral, and where the senator had once been stationed as a flight instructor. He spoke of his "martial heritage" and how the men and women of his family taught him about duty, honor, and courage.

On Tuesday, McCain spoke at his alma mater, Episcopal High School, in Alexandria, Va., where he was a self-described mediocre student and a bit of a rapscallion – but successful enough to be accepted into the Naval Academy. He linked his own experience to the educational challenges the nation faces today – and the need for top-notch teachers, in particular honoring the teacher who had most influenced his high school years.

On Wednesday, McCain is scheduled to speak at the Naval Academy and then in Pensacola, Fla., where he attended flight school. On Thursday, McCain heads to Jacksonville, Fla., where his wife and children lived during his POW years. The tour ends in Arizona, his adopted home state.

"You can't take for granted how well known he is," says Charles Black, a senior campaign adviser. "But it's more than a biography tour. It's also about values, things he learned in these places that make up part of his character, and it's about national service."

In each town, McCain is doing a service event, as part of his regular theme of calling on people "to serve a cause bigger than themselves."

Part of why many senior Democratic players are itching to finish their own nomination battle is that they see major vulnerabilities in the McCain candidacy, and they're eager to start going after him.

"I'm a big believer, in terms of the Democratic approach now, that we really need to start drawing contrasts and also to seize on the pretty serious gaffes that he's making," says Democratic communications strategist Peter Fenn, referring first to McCain's comment about Sunnis and Shiites.

Some Republicans questioned the wisdom of McCain spending a week focusing on biography, especially in light of recent presidential elections, when the candidates with distinguished military records have lost to men with limited or no military background.

Columnist William Kristol suggested in The New York Times that "with recession on the horizon, three-quarters of the American public thinking the country's on the wrong track, and the president and Congress at historically low approval levels – shouldn't we be seeing more of McCain the domestic reformer?"

Dan Schnur, an aide on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign who has not been involved in the current effort, says initially he questioned the plan to spend a whole week looking back on biography, but then came around to the idea.

"At first I wondered whether a discussion of his biography could keep him in the news, given everything that's going on with the Clinton-Obama race," says Mr. Schnur. "But it's pretty clear that, given the media's interest in having a balance of coverage, it's provided an opportunity for him to get more attention for his biography than he normally would."

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