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McCain ad asserts his hatred of war

Senator shifts tone to draw moderates

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / June 11, 2008

WASHINGTON - John McCain, who credits his defiant defense of the Iraq war for his comeback victory in the Republican primaries, is using his first major television ad of the general election to show his dovish side.

"Only a fool or a fraud talks tough or romantically about war," McCain says over mournful strings against a bleak backdrop, including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "I hate war, and I know how terrible its costs are."

It is a far different tone than McCain took during the primaries, when he launched a "No Surrender" tour to highlight his involvement in the Bush administration's "surge" strategy in Iraq. A high-profile ad then used McCain's credentials as a prisoner of war to vouch for him as he fierily exhorted a crowd to "Stand up. We're Americans. We're Americans and we'll never surrender; they will!"

In his latest ad, which is on the air in 10 states and is to start on national cable today, McCain does not mention Iraq or Iran, areas where he has tried to draw stark policy contrasts with Democrat Barack Obama, and says only that "I'm running for president to keep the country I love safe." McCain's background is used to introduce him not as a relentless combatant, but a reticent one.

"Because he's so well-known as a warrior, as a prisoner of war, as a hawk on foreign policy, somebody who does not know him well might think he would err on the side of using military force," said Charlie Black, a McCain adviser. "And nothing could be further from the truth."

The ad, in the view of some political analysts, is evidence of McCain's defensiveness about being portrayed by Obama as a warmonger - and also an example of the tremendous opportunities his unique biography affords him to assert distance from an unpopular administration's handling of Iraq.

"To me, the ad is much more playing off Bush than playing off Obama," said Jeremy Varon, a historian at Drew University in Madison, N.J., who has studied antiwar movements. "The point of this is for McCain to say: 'I'm very different from my predecessor even if I want to fight the same war.' "

That turn marks a move by McCain not only to distance himself from a fellow Republican as he moves into the general election, but to reach out to moderates, especially women who had backed Senator Hillary Clinton - a candidate who stood as an opponent of the Iraq war but emphasized security and her personal toughness in her losing bid for the Democratic nomination.

"This might appeal to women," said Black. "Anybody who's studying his positions about foreign policy and national security needs to know this part of his attitude and background."

McCain has already demonstrated success assembling an unlikely coalition on war issues.

Despite his unwavering prowar stance, McCain performed best in early primaries, including New Hampshire, with those voters who described themselves as strongly against the war in Iraq. Analysts at the time credited that success to McCain's ability to convey a seriousness about the subject and to separate himself from the administration's failures.

Yet since he secured the Republican nomination in March, Democrats have tried to paint McCain as reckless toward the subject of American losses in Iraq. They point most frequently to a remark McCain made during a January town hall that a 100-year presence in Iraq was "fine with me."

"I won't stand here and pretend that there are many good options left in Iraq, but what's not an option is leaving our troops in that country for the next hundred years," Obama said last week.

While McCain has taken a belligerent posture generally against Obama - particularly in suggesting that a willingness to negotiate with Iranian leaders is evidence of weakness - his new ad indicates that McCain is seeking a debate about war leadership waged over character as much as policy.

In the ad, McCain recounts, in simple but grave sentences delivered directly to the camera, the effects of war on three generations of his family. At each point, McCain speaks of war as an abstraction, not distinguishing the sacrifices made in World War II from Vietnam - and, by extension, Iraq.

"By not differentiating, he's saying all wars are morally equal," said Varon, who supports Obama.

The ad appears to be part of a consistent effort to soften McCain's aesthetic. The first website he launched was in black and white with a militaristic insignia as its unifying motif; McCain's latest is filled with bright colors.

"He can not afford to be perceived as a cowboy," said Ian Lang, a Republican consultant in Rhode Island. "To some extent, men will want somebody forceful and forthright. Women will be looking for someone strong, but they're not as impressed by the person who will throw down the gauntlet at any cost."

Sasha Issenberg can be reached at sissenberg@globe.com.

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