John McCain’s supporters are frustrated.
They’ve watched in recent weeks as their candidate has paid a heavy price in the polls for his unflagging, outspoken support for the war in Iraq. They’ve also watched with dismay as Rudy Giuliani—Mr. McCain’s chief rival for the G.O.P. Presidential nomination in 2008—has profited by essentially sidestepping the entire matter.
“Rudy doesn’t have an Iraq policy,” said Jim Nicholson, a former Bush fund-raising “Ranger” who is Mr. McCain’s Michigan finance chair. “He’s spending his time hiding from that. If you are a conventional politician, Iraq’s the third rail, and the answer is you hide from that.”
“Everybody notices,” said another prominent McCain supporter. “We’ve been laughing that he wrote a book called Leadership and yet hasn’t shown any whatsoever on the No. 1 issue facing America.”
Mr. McCain’s supporters will take laughter where they can get it, one supposes. As he limps towards a primary that he was supposed to dominate—an April Gallup Poll of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents showed him 13 points behind Mr. Giuliani, down from 22 in a previous poll—it has become increasingly apparent that the 70-year-old Vietnam War hero is no longer the irrepressible candidate of 2000.
On Monday afternoon in Washington, just days before his official announcement—scheduled for April 25 in Portsmouth, N.H.—Mr. McCain delivered a dry energy-policy speech about government support for the development of ethanol, a policy he opposed during his first run, when he explicitly refused to pander to the corn-centric voters in the all-important Iowa caucuses.
Talking to reporters afterwards about his delivery of policy addresses before he had even declared his candidacy officially, Mr. McCain sounded somewhat like his frustrated supporters.
“In an announcement of candidacy, you have a general, overall thematic aspect of your address that you get as many people as you can get to pay attention to,” he said, standing between American flags and a bouquet of microphones in the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. “You also, at the same time, have to develop and present specific proposals and the vision that you have on the challenges facing the country.”
He has a point.
In sharp contrast with Mr. McCain’s clear—if hugely unpopular—commitment to inserting as many troops into Iraq as needed to achieve some sort of positive outcome, Mr. Giuliani has found a way to avoid rendering either explicit opinions about the troop-level increase or suggestions about what to do if it fails.
On April 24, when reporters in Iowa asked Mr. Giuliani to evaluate the success of the early stages of President Bush’s “surge” strategy, he said: ‘‘I don’t know the answer to that.”
He was asked moments later about the conditions under which the United States might be able to leave Iraq. ‘‘The minute you start listing the circumstances under which you’re going to pull out, you start talking about defeat,” he said, according to an A.P. report. “What we have to achieve in Iraq is a government and a situation that acts as a bulwark against terrorism, rather than as an encouragement for them—and then you’ve got to figure out the strategies to get you there and make them work.’’
Logical, maybe, but not really an answer.
“Maybe Giuliani does have a position on the war, but I do not think it is as clearly enunciated or as clearly defined as John McCain’s,” said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster who is not affiliated with any of the 2008 candidates. “McCain has jumped in with both feet.”
Mr. Fabrizio said that Mr. Giuliani was attempting to play to his strength as the unassailable hero of Sept. 11 by answering most questions about Iraq in the context of the wider fight against terrorism.
Somewhat ironically, given his unflinching support for the Bush administration’s arguments in the run-up to the war in Iraq, Mr. McCain is paying a price for that deliberate intermingling of Iraq and Sept. 11.
“They are not the same thing,” said Wayne Berman, the vice chairman of Mr. McCain’s campaign. “Clearly, from the point of view of the electorate—the primary electorate and general electorate—they do not see them as the same. From the polling data we are seeing in our campaign, they are not the same thing, and the electorate wants to know all the candidates’ positions and policies on Iraq.”
Mr. Berman said he fully expected that the former Mayor would offer a meatier Iraq policy eventually. But, he said, “Senator McCain has staked out clear and precise and decisive ground on Iraq, because that’s what he wants to talk about. In the case of the Mayor, he has decided that there are other subjects that he would prefer to talk about.”
To be precise, Mr. Giuliani likes to talk about his fiscal conservatism as Mayor and his crime-fighting accomplishments. A “Rudy Record by the Numbers” talking-points memo that his campaign distributed to supporters in March emphasized his success cutting taxes and crime in New York. A few weeks later, Mr. Giuliani told a closed-door meeting of the anti-tax group the Club for Growth that when it came to practicing fiscal discipline, “I’m the only one that’s done that.”
Besides that, terrorism has been his most common refrain. To conservatives concerned about his deeply unconservative past on social issues like abortion, gun control and gay rights, he has made the argument that they all pale in importance next to security concerns. In fact, it is through his private-sector experience as a security consultant that Mr. Giuliani has sought to inoculate himself against the claim that he lacks foreign-policy experience.
“I’ve probably been in foreign lands more than any other candidate for President in the last five to six years,” Mr. Giuliani said this month during a campaign stop in New Hampshire.
But when it comes to Iraq, which Mr. Giuliani has never visited, the former Mayor has forgone substantive policy speeches in favor of comments like “We’ve got to put Iraq in the context of a much broader picture than just Iraq” and “We’ve got to get beyond Iraq.”
During a meeting last month of conservative political-action committees in Washington, Mr. Giuliani gave an extensive speech that touched on the Civil War, the Cold War, World War II and many issues related to America’s foreign affairs. He explicitly mentioned Iraq only once.
While he has identified mistakes in the war’s prosecution—including the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the lack of a sufficient number of ground troops following the initial invasion—he has expressed overall support for President Bush’s strategy in Iraq.
“If there is a delicate issue for which there is no easy and ready answer—and the war in Iraq, and what to do, is an issue that neither of these candidates have talked about very often—you would just as soon not have to talk about it,” said Mr. Bathgate.
Mr. McCain, on the other hand, now has little choice but to press on.
“Having been a critic of the way this war was fought, and a proponent of the very strategy now being followed, it is my obligation to encourage Americans to give it a chance to succeed,” he said on April 11 at the Virginia Military Institute.
Mr. McCain also said—as he has before and since—that he would rather lose the election than shift his position on the war.
It may yet come to that.
“Do we get some push-back on this issue when we are trying to raise money for him? Of course we do,” said Mr. Nicholson, describing how Mr. McCain’s identification with the war had hurt his campaign. “But certainly he won’t get a call from me saying, ‘Don’t do this anymore.’ It defines the man.”