McCain must separate himself from Bush, says strategist

Differences include control of federal spending and climate change, argues adviser Charlie Black

A key challenge for John McCain's presidential campaign will be to make sure that voters do not see the Arizona senator's candidacy as a continuation of the Bush presidency, given Mr. Bush's low approval numbers.

"How do you 'separate' McCain from Bush?" asked Charlie Black, senior adviser to the McCain campaign, at a Friday lunch with reporters sponsored by the Monitor. He then ticked off several issues where the two men disagree, including control of federal spending and Iraq war strategy.

"A lot of people know John McCain, know his background and his history and his record," said Mr. Black, a major force in Republican politics since 1976, when he worked on Ronald Reagan's bid to wrest the nomination from Gerald Ford. "Those who do [know McCain], understand he is not a protégé of President Bush.... There are some differences on issues, on significant issues, too, that help drive the point home."

For example: "The Iraq War was a significant difference and we are now winning in Iraq because the president did, to his credit, adopt Senator McCain's strategy of a counterinsurgency strategy," said Black, in his faint southern accent rooted in his Wilmington, N.C., childhood. "Spending – the out-of-control federal spending which the president candidly has not made a priority to control – Senator McCain has always had it as a priority,"

The campaign will also "be talking about climate change quite a bit," said Black. "That is a big difference between President Bush and Senator McCain."

Another McCain challenge could be his age (71).

"I don't see the age thing as a huge issue," Black said. "In McCain's case, his energy, passion, the schedule he keeps, all those things that are known to a lot of you will be apparent to the American people by the fall. Later in May, we are going to release his medical records, let you have some fun with that. What you are going to find is that he is in good health. Where he is now in his life expectancy is substantial, substantially beyond where he is."

Still, his selection of a vice president will be watched especially closely. Black said McCain "is thinking about names. He is not talking to any of us about names yet. As he said this week in answer to a question, we are in the embryonic stage of the process."

Would McCain name someone to head the vice presidential selection process, the way Richard Cheney did for George Bush? "I think he is the chairman of the selection committee. He will talk to a great variety of people, as he does on all issues and matters of importance. But at least he hasn't talked about appointing a committee that would be, that would work on this publicly," Black said.

When asked about the Democratic presidential race, Black returned to one of his favorite lines. "Never count the Clintons out until they are out." But he added he would be "surprised, not shocked" if Senator Clinton won the nomination.

Perhaps the most animated moment in his visit came after the lunch had formally ended and Black was asked whether Barack Obama's friendship with William Ayers, who had been a member of the Weather Underground, was fair game. From 1969 to 1975 the Weather Underground group engaged in violent acts including planting bombs at the US Capitol and the Pentagon.

"I do not know the extent of Senator Obama's relationship with Ayers. We know he helped him get started in politics in Chicago. But is it a deep enough relationship that it matters? We are not sure, but we think it is a very fair question," Black said.

"There is a big difference between that guy [Ayers] and Reverend Wright," Black said. "If [Ayers] was involved in his political organization and was one of his movers and shakers for a period of years and Obama obviously knew about the guy's history, then that creates a question about his judgment. Again, an unrepentant terrorist is what this guy is."

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