Facing a Democratic Party positively giddy over his recent admission that he didn't know how many houses he owned, John McCain quickly returned to a political trump card: his POW experience.
Speaking to the Washington Post, aide Brian Rogers, in full damage-control mode, acknowledged that his boss had "some investment properties and stuff," but added: "This is a guy who lived in one house for five and a half years -- in prison."
That the McCain campaign could incorporate his service in Vietnam into a campaign spat over his property portfolio is not so surprising. The Senator has, rightfully or not, used his history as a POW shrewdly and repeatedly throughout this campaign. Earlier this week, for instance, amidst speculation that the Senator may have received in advance the questions to a values forum between him and Obama, spokeswoman Nicole Wallace declared: "The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous."
When Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of former Senator John Edwards, ridiculed McCain's health care policy, his aides didn't respond with a substantive retort. Rather, they declared that their boss knew what it was like to get inadequate care "from another government." Even earlier, when the topic was about earmarks, McCain criticized Sen. Hillary Clinton for proposing funds for a museum celebrating Woodstock. He didn't know what there was to celebrate, he said, because he was "tied up" during the music festival.
The Senator has even brought his military record into discussion of his music tastes. Explaining that his favorite song was "Dancing Queen" by ABBA, he offered that his knowledge of music "stopped evolving when his plane intercepted a surface-to-air missile." Dancing Queen, however, was produced in 1975, eight years after McCain's plane was shot down.
Preceding this election, there was a fairly wide-ranging belief that McCain was hesitant to use his POW experience in a political context. The Senator himself, during the 2004 election, said he was "sick and tired of re-fighting" the Vietnam War.
"It's offensive to me, and it's angering to me that we're doing this," he said. "It's time to move on."
But during this campaign, it seems such reluctance is no longer an issue, with the POW line sneaking into many of the campaign's commercials and -- more subtly -- their foreign policy attacks. Much of this strategy has come at the urging of GOP operatives. Karl Rove, for example, wrote an April 2008 Wall Street Journal op-ed urging the presumptive Republican nominee to "open up more" on his Vietnam days or "many voters will never know the experiences of his life that show his character."
Democrats, meanwhile, have been torn over what is an appropriate response. While many attack-oriented strategists have been pleading a more head-on rebuttal (applauding, for instance, Gen Wesley Clark for declaring that one's time as a POW had no relevance to being commander in chief), the Obama campaign seems more willing to deflect any and all attention from this part of McCain's biography.
"The fact is, we respect Senator McCain's service and his courage in Vietnam, but we continue to believe that this election is about who is the best president to lead in the 21st Century," Philip Carter, Obama's veterans director, told the Huffington Post. "As you heard on the phone today with the veterans, the critical issue is who understands the threats facing this country and who will make the right decisions about war and peace. That person is Barack Obama, not Senator McCain."