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John McCain: Democrats' Punching Bag

Sen. John McCain's (Ariz.) status as the frontrunner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination comes with its share of pluses and minuses. On the plus side, he is in prime position to court sought-after activists and fundraisers to his cause. On the minus side, McCain is a ready target for any candidate hoping to elevate him or herself in the presidential sweepstakes.

Witness the recent comments made by two Democratic governors -- New Mexico's Bill Richardson and Iowa's Tom Vilsack -- about McCain's call to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Vilsack, who has already announced he is running for the Democratic nomination, sent a letter to McCain dated Dec. 18 saying that sending more troops to Iraq would "make a big mistake even bigger and send the wrong message to President Bush." Vilsack called on McCain to "advocate for a new strategy in Iraq that strengthens our national interests and advances the prospects of a lasting military and political solution throughout the region."

Two days earlier, Richardson -- in a speech at St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire -- said McCain's plan for a troop increase "makes no sense." He added: "There is no military solution. There's got to be a political solution."

Even Mark Penn, a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has gotten into the act. Penn told the New York Daily News that McCain was "going out on a limb suggesting [sending more troops to Iraq] is the right thing to do right now."

For his part, McCain has largely avoided responding to attacks on his plan from Democrats, although his political strategist -- John Weaver -- hit back at Penn: "It must be so alien for them -- the Clinton advisers -- to actually observe someone say and do what they believe to be right and good for the country without polling on it first." Ouch.

McCain can expect this sort of "punching bag" treatment to continue as long as conventional wisdom pegs him as the frontrunner for the Republican nomination. For candidates like Vilsack or Richardson, who remain largely unknown nationwide and are mired in low single digits in polling in early caucus and primary states, attacking McCain is a sure-fire way of elevating themselves -- albeit briefly -- to his level in the presidential sweepstakes. By ignoring them, McCain doesn't get sucked into a prolonged public fight with candidates who would relish nothing more than a high-profile spat with the Arizona senator.

This strategy is less true when it comes to Clinton, who is McCain's equal when it comes to presidential positioning. It's no accident that Weaver responded to comments from the Clinton camp while essentially ignoring those by Richardson and Vilsack. When it comes to Clinton, expect McCain and his allies to let no attack -- anonymous or otherwise -- go unanswered.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 21, 2006; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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