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Making Sept. The Month of McCain

John McCain, last month in S.C., is launching a "no surrender" tour. (AP).

The political world rightly buzzes today about Fred Thompson and how his entry into the presidential campaign reshapes the Republican race. It is John McCain's hope that, by the end September, this will be remembered not as Thompson's moment, but McCain's month.

Most analysts scoff at such a notion, and for good reason. It is a measure of McCain's weakened political standing that he was the object of so much affection at Wednesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire.

"I have tremendous respect for Senator McCain," said Rudy Giuliani, who would like those New Hampshire supporters of McCain to switch their allegiance. "I think I've said more than once, if I wasn't running, I'd probably be supporting him for president of the United States."

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who has tied or eclipsed McCain in Iowa, spoke as if McCain is no longer a real factor in the race but an iconic figure of the past. "Senator McCain made a great point -- and let me make this clear," he said. "If there's anybody on this stage that understands the word honor, I've got to say Senator McCain understands that word because he has given his country a sacrifice the rest of us don't even comprehend."

Those words came during what was one of McCain's most effective performances in a Republican debate this year. It is now his goal to use the coming debate in Washington over the report by Army Gen. David Petraeus and defense funding to reestablish himself in the eyes of Republicans as the candidate who has been most consistently right about Iraq for four years and therefore is the right man to become the next commander-in-chief.

McCain will make two arguments. First, that, alone among the Republican candidates, he was highly critical of the Bush administration's Iraq policy when it wasn't popular to do so--back in late 2003 and early 2004. He will point to what he said about the need for more troops on the ground in Iraq at the time, and to his condemnations of then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

"I've taken unpopular stance [sic] because I knew what was right," he said Wednesday. "Back in 2003, amid criticism from my fellow Republicans, I spoke strongly against the then Rumsfeld strategy, which I knew was doomed to failure and [would] cause so much needless sacrifice."

Calling out his rivals on Iraq will be a central part of McCain's argument, a fact underscored in an interview Wednesday with the Arizona senator's new campaign manager Rick Davis. Speaking of Giuliani, Romney and Thompson, he said, "Find me one quote where they stuck their neck out and said anything that was counter to Rumsfeld or Bush or Cheney on the war for the last five years."

Second, McCain will argue that he was the first of the GOP candidates to fully embrace President Bush's troop surge strategy at a time when public opinion was running in the opposite direction, and that he has been proven right. As he put it emphatically on Wednesday when Mitt Romney said somewhat tentatively that the surge was "apparently working": "No, not 'apparently;' it's working."

The evidence from Iraq is far more mixed than McCain suggested in the debate, but his advisers are counting on a generally positive report from Petraeus this month to give them the opening to force a reinterpretation of McCain and the war, which they believe will position him for a possible comeback in the campaign.

"For years it was McCain against the party on the war, and then the war failed and McCain, instead of getting credit for it, looked like the troublemaker," Davis said. "Then after the [2006] election, Bush pivots and goes to where McCain is at a time the war is the least popular thing in American politics, so we get the least popular president and the least popular issue co-enjoined with McCain. This is the first time when there's a little bit of daylight where McCain can say, "Look, they came my way. This was my strategy." Someone remarked to me the other day that the best friend we've got right now is John Edwards, who said this was the McCain Doctrine. We didn't like it at the time, but now it's exactly what it's turned out to be."

Far from seeking to de-emphasize the war and shift focus to the reform issues that propelled his 2000 campaign, McCain has decided to make Iraq the centerpiece of his recovery strategy. His team has put together a September schedule with a singular focus on the war, a seemingly risky strategy given how much Iraq damaged him at the beginning of the campaign.

It will begin this Saturday with a speech on Iraq at the California Republican convention, where McCain will brandish his credentials to be commander-in-chief, followed by what is being called the "no surrender" tour. That swing will put McCain back on his bus for stops at VFW halls and other such venues in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, where he will attempt to generate new support for the war.

McCain will conclude the tour with a rally at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C., on Sept. 17 and then return to Washington to help manage the defense authorization bill on the Senate floor, where he will fight any efforts by Democrats to attach a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces, if Democrats go down that road again.

All of this is mere hope at this point, a blueprint making the best of a bad situation. McCain's problems in the GOP race run deeper than Iraq--remember immigration? -- and given the problems he's encountered, reversing his backward momentum will be enormously difficult over the next few months. That's why Davis calls September "an important moving month for us," Davis said.

Davis took over the campaign after a bitter, internal split between McCain and former manager Terry Nelson and chief strategist John Weaver. The operation is now a skeleton of what it once was--back when Davis and others projected raising and spending as much as $150 million to win the nomination. But he argues that for all McCain has been through, he is still not out of the running to exceed expectations in Iowa and then win New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Davis said the finances are back in balance. In July and August, the campaign raised more than it spent for the first time all year. It will not be until mid-October when the public gets an accurate look at the books. That still looms as a critical report, although McCain may decide to borrow against federal matching funds to stay in the race.

What McCain's team is hoping is that September will begin the rebound. Where will that leave McCain in the early states six or eight weeks from now? "I think it's more we'd like to see movement," Davis said. "I don't think there's a number--I think there's already been a stabilization. The question now is can we get a tick back up in these states."

McCain faces a long road back and, in typical fashion, he has decided to take the hard way--by re-embracing Iraq. But he probably won't have to wait long to know whether it's working.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 6, 2007; 1:10 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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