With Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton still busy campaigning for their party's nomination, other groups have taken the initiative of crafting the strategy to be used against Republican John McCain. Their first goal will be to undermine the image of McCain as a "maverick;" the Arizona Senator is sure to use his reputation as a moderate to capitalize on his popularity among independents.
To counter this threat, Democrats have come up with two methods. First, convince voters that McCain is no centrist. Second, show that what is perceived as moderation is in fact opportunistic politicking. In short, Democrats want to make McCain into the mirror image of John Kerry: an out-of touch flip-flopper.
The first strategy is to portray John McCain as a fundamentally conservative politician, and Democrats believe their best argument is to hang the incumbent president around McCain's neck. "He is not offering people any kind of relief but more of the failed hands-off approach Bush has offered for the past seven years," said DNC spokesperson Damien LaVera. "That is not a moderate record. At the end of the day all he offers is Bush's third term. And that's the last thing voters want."
Whatever dissensions existed between McCain and Bush, Democrats believe that the Arizona Senator made himself vulnerable by cozying up to the White House in recent years. And on no issue has McCain has come to be associated with the Bush Administration as much as on the Iraq War.
Prominent Democrats used to call the surge strategy the "McCain doctrine." Now, they are stepping up attacks on other aspects of McCain's hawkishness, hinting that he would extend to Iran what Bush started in Iraq. His statement that the United States could stay in Iraq for a hundred years has already become one of the Democrats' favorite lines - and it is sure to haunt him all the way to November.
McCain's opponents are attacking the Republican candidate on a variety of issues beyond Iraq. NARAL, the pro-choice advocacy group, recently launched its own effort against McCain's solid pro-life record. Ted Miller, a NARAL spokesperson, explained that the organization is committed to helping pro-choice candidates beyond the presidential race. But McCain's maverick reputation made an intervention particularly urgent.
"There is a belief out there that McCain is moderate and we have to debunk that myth immediately," said Miller. He immediately points out that such a misconception is particularly dangerous when it comes to abortion. "When voters think of a moderate Republican they think he must be pro-choice," he added. "We want to educate people about how bad McCain is on choice."
NARAL created the website Meet the Real McCain (www.MeetTheRealMcCain.com), that asks visitors to learn about the Republican's record and send the information along to friends. "The REAL John McCain is not the "moderate maverick" the pundits like to swoon over," explains the website. "The REAL McCain has spent the last 25 years amassing one of the worst anti-choice voting records in Congress."
Inherent in efforts to portray McCain's true position as being at odds with his moderate reputation is the suggestion that the senator is unprincipled and opportunistic, the second part of the Democrats' offensive against McCain's maverick reputation. The flip-flopping charge was even brought up during his party's primaries, particularly regarding Bush's tax cuts (McCain opposed them in 2001 but he now wants them to be made permanent).
Democrats learned in 2004 that a candidate being associated with flip-flopping can transform his strongest advantage (a reputation as a pragmatist) into his biggest liability. Democrats also learned that getting the charge to stick requires it be leveled with compulsive repetition. And they will need to be even more repetitive this year. McCain, after all, is already well-known by voters, and that makes him that much harder to define. In 2004, few general election voters had a clear opinion of John Kerry and the multi-million spring and summer GOP spending spree introduced him to voters before he had a chance to develop his own narrative.
Accordingly, Democrats are already rehearsing their lines, and Obama likes to say that the "Somewhere along the line, the Straight Talk Express lost some wheels." The DNC is also doing its part to denounce McCain's inconsistencies, releasing a number of web videos centered on this theme.
"When voters look at McCain they are now going to see a pandering politician," said LaVera. He pointed to McCain's turning his back on the FEC and his relying on lobbyists despite his championing campaign finance as evidence of McCain's double-talk. "Only when it stood his political interests" did he take courageous positions, argued LaVera.
The DNC has also launched a website to drive its point home. 'McCain Debates' features the Arizona Senator debating (and contradicting) himself on a variety of issues. At the end of every "round" an image of Bush offers McCain a thumbs-up, in an attempt to tie the two Republicans together as tightly as possible.
At the end of the day, whether Democrats succeed in painting McCain as an opportunist rather than as a maverick crusader will depend on whether they open heavy fire early enough to prevent a poorly-funded McCain from responding. The successful duplication of the GOP's anti-Kerry strategy requires a quick implementation.
The McCain campaign did not respond to requests for comment on this article.