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McCain's Health: What It Means

The early returns from the release of Sen. John McCain's (Ariz.) medical history are promising for the presumptive Republican nominee.

The records, which were reviewed by the Associated Press before the 11 a.m. scheduled release of a summary report on the findings, show that McCain is cancer-free and in good health despite the obvious medical problems posed by injuries inflicted during his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam and, more recently, his battle with melanoma.

"I think physiologically he is considerably younger than his chronologic age based on his cardiovascular fitness," McCain's personal physician, Dr. John Eckstein, told the Associated Press in a quote that couldn't have been better for the Arizona senator if he had written it himself.

The way in which the release of the much-anticipated information was handled by the McCain campaign is a study in political savvy and suggests that his operation is ready for the bright spotlight of the general election.

First, let's set the scene.

McCain's health has long been a topic of discussion in the campaign due to his advanced age -- he will be 72 by the time of the November election -- and his past medical problems.

McCain himself regularly pokes fun at both his age and his wounds; "I'm older than dirt and I have more scars than Frankenstein," he jokes with audiences.

But, the Arizona senator's campaign is well aware that concerns about whether he is well enough and up to the job are potentially perilous for a candidate seeking to win the age versus experience battle with youthful Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) in the fall.

To that end, the McCain campaign knew this day would inevitably come. What was out of their control was what the records would say. Picking how the release of the records would be played in the media, however, was under their control and they sought to control it.

Here's a look at a few of the strategies employed:

* More is Less: Following in the footsteps of document dumps throughout political history, McCain's campaign released 1,173 pages of documents detailing his medical history between 2000 and 2008 to a select few reporters while releasing more broadly a summary of the findings. The campaign will also put a cavalcade of doctors on the phone with reporters this afternoon to answer any and all questions relating to the documents. The release of massive amounts of information all at once ensures two things: first, that almost no reporter will be able to scan every document before producing his or her story and second that no one will be able to accuse the campaign of hiding information. In this, the McCain campaign may well be taking their cues from the successful (from a political standpoint at least) release earlier this year of the tax returns of Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign made every last document available and all but dared reporters to find something damaging. Many tried but little was found beyond the fact that former president Clinton is handsomely paid for his speech-giving.

* TGIF: It's become a tried and true policy in Washington that bad news tends to break late on Fridays. That's because sharp flacks know that the attention of the American public tends to linger to movies, bars, sports and other distractions right around noon on Friday. (That is, of course, not true for The Fix who retains his laser-like focus on politics 24 hours a day, seven days a week.) By releasing the documents on a Friday -- and a Friday before a long, holiday weekend no less -- the McCain campaign is relying on the fact that average voters are either already on their way to Memorial Day destinations or heading there in their minds.

The story will get major play no matter what -- McCain is the Republican presidential nominee after all -- but the audience for the stories is likely to be lower than if the documents were dropped on a Monday or Tuesday for example. (Interesting sidenote: The Fix spoke to Serbian reporters and editors yesterday and confirmed that the Friday afternoon document dump exists even in Serbia!)

* Leaky, Leaky: Reporters from all over the country had been waiting for 11 a.m. to begin their scouring of the records. The McCain campaign, seeking to establish the story line before the western world got a look at the records, allowed the AP a sneak peek. The result? A positive story for the campaign that is likely to shape the narrative for the day. Need more evidence of the success of McCain's leak> Check out the Drudge Report where a picture of a healthy-looking McCain giving the "thumbs up" is featured in the lead slot over a link to the AP story.

What seems clear from the early hours of the health story is that no smoking gun exists. (An Important Note: The Fix has not reviewed the documents and is simply using the Associated Press, which has done so, for guidance.) That does not mean that the McCain campaign is entirely out of the woods, however. Thousands of eyes will be perusing these documents over the next few hours and days and it's possible that something (or some things) will be found that will keep the story alive heading into the fall.

For the moment, however, McCain's campaign has successfully cleared one of its major hurdles as they prepare for the general election campaign.

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 23, 2008; 11:40 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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