|Campaign summary: McCain|
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NEW YORK — When John McCain stopped in New York one Tuesday in October to make his pre-primaries pitch to a room full of Jewish bigwigs, he spent virtually all his time discussing foreign policy — after an emotional introduction from James Tisch that focused less on policy than the character of the presidential candidate standing before them.
Tisch, a scion of a family real estate empire, proud Republican and decorated Jewish communal leader, invoked the memory of the late Washington power lawyer David Ifshin and his unlikely friendship with McCain.
Back when McCain was a prisoner of war being held and tortured by the North Vietnamese, Ifshin — then a hard-core anti-war protester — visited Hanoi to speak out against US involvement in the war. His remarks were piped into McCain’s cell.
A few years later, the story goes, Ifshin found himself living on a kibbutz in Israel when the Yom Kippur War erupted. Watching US aircraft arrive with supplies to aid the beleaguered country triggered a transformation in Ifshin that would culminate with his becoming a lawyer for AIPAC and then the Clinton administration.
Along the way, after McCain had entered the US Congress, Ifshin sought out the Republican lawmaker and asked his forgiveness. The two became friends and worked together on human rights causes.
“It was,” Tisch told the 50 people assembled, “an inspiration for many of us.”
And, one could reasonably add, a powerful example of why — before the twists and turns of an increasingly bitter presidential race — McCain commanded respect in Democratic and liberal circles.
The veteran Arizona senator has always been a staunch conservative on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues. But when it comes to grand themes — his emphasis on personal redemption, reconciliation, bipartisanship, sacrifice — McCain’s message has resonated across party lines.
It is true that in the heat of the race, McCain’s “Country First” campaign slogan can sound to the Democratic ear like a swipe at the patriotism of the opposing ticket. But when voicing the fuller version — when grounding his commitment to country in his realization in a Vietnam prison camp that the greatest fulfillment in life is serving a cause greater than one’s self — McCain sounds like John F. Kennedy urging a new generation to embrace the notion of putting service to country first.
Just as important in understanding McCain’s appeal among Democrats, independents and the mainstream media is his willingness to work with liberal stalwarts — Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy on immigration and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold on campaign finance — and his willingness to criticize conservative efforts to demonize political opponents.
During his own failed bid for the 2000 Republican nomination, McCain lashed out at the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, calling them “agents of intolerance” after they lined up behind then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
And on Election Night in 2002, while others in his party were celebrating big Republican gains, McCain was on “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart lamenting the defeat of Democrat Max Cleland in Georgia.
It was not the first time that McCain tore into the GOP over its strategy of questioning the patriotism of Cleland, a fellow veteran who lost three limbs in Vietnam.
McCain was known for palling around with liberal East Coast media elites and being a target of some evangelical leaders and conservative radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh.
In recent weeks, as McCain ratcheted up his attacks on Obama, he has found himself being accused of embracing the same dirty campaign tactics that he has so often criticized.
McCain’s detractors argue that his reputation for straight talk is no longer deserved, pointing to ads accusing Obama of associating with domestic terrorists.
Several Republican lawmakers and McCain’s own running mate have joined Democrats in criticizing his campaign’s recent strategy of flooding the phone lines in swing states with anti-Obama robo-calls.
Democrats have also taken aim at McCain’s status as a maverick, painting him as a clone of President Bush when it comes to the economy and foreign policy.
They note that the candidate has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers who back the Iraq war and oppose robust diplomatic initiatives with Syria and Iran.
The Republican nominee seemed poised to make serious inroads among Jewish voters. Polls for months showed McCain already surpassing the 25% of the Jewish vote that Bush took in 2004, with plenty of undecideds still up for grabs.
McCain received a boost from his reputation for bipartisanship and bucking religious conservatives, his long record of support for Israel, tough talk on Iran, a prominent endorsement from US Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) and lingering questions about Barack Obama.
While Jewish GOPers have attempted to paint Obama as someone who might end up tilting toward the Palestinian side in the peace process, McCain has focused more on Iran and Iraq in attempting to challenge Obama’s preparedness to lead on the Middle East.
McCain has pounded again and again on Obama’s stated willingness to meet with Iran’s president, and argued that Obama’s timeline for a pullout from Iraq would threaten Israel and the US.
“Allowing a potential terrorist sanctuary would profoundly affect the security of the US, Israel and our other friends, and would invite further intervention from Iraq’s neighbors, including a very much emboldened Iran,” McCain told thousands of pro-Israel activists in June. “We must not let this happen.”