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Battle between ‘crock' McCain and 'weird' Giuliani

London Times | February 18, 2007  
Sarah Baxter

POLITICAL opponents are quick to point out that John McCain will be 72 when he enters the White House if he wins the presidency in two years' time. His disarming response is: “I'm as old as dirt and have more scars than Franken-stein.” And he never fails to mention his indomitable mother and her twin sister, who have just celebrated their 95th birthday.

Age has become an issue for McCain. He has been hip enough to appear in a cameo role in the film Wedding Crash-ers and hiked in the Grand Canyon with his son last summer, but the risks of voting for a candidate who is already 70 and has suffered several bouts of skin cancer are sinking in with voters.

A Gallup poll last week showed his campaign in a sudden fall against Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, whom Republican supporters said they favoured over McCain by 40% to 24%.

Beneath the headline number, more than four in 10 voters said they would not vote for a “generally well-qualified person” who was 72.

Giuliani, 62, is emerging this weekend as the candidate with the “big mo”, in the words of CNN's polling analyst Bill Schneider. Another poll on Friday showed the former mayor beating McCain in a head-to-head contest by 53% to 31%, although his drawbacks may simply be less well-known than McCain's for now.

Friends say the senior senator for Arizona is gloomy about what he calls the “train wreck” in Iraq, after investing so much passion and energy in supporting the war. ABC News's influen-tial political blog, The Note, summed up McCain's difficulties last week: “Too old, too temperamental, too anxious to appease the right and too damaged by Iraq.”

John Weaver, McCain's top campaign adviser, said the senator's “vigorous” campaign would settle any doubts about his age and health. “He is not concerned about that and his 95-year-old mother is not concerned about that,” he fired back at the Gallup poll's findings.

Another aide claimed recently that the punishing pace McCain set on the campaign trail during the congressional elections last year, when he was on the road for two months, showed that he still had the “physical wherewithal to do all this”. The proof, he added, was that “no one staffer can do all the travel with him. Because we burn out too quick”.

McCain, with his record as a war hero and prisoner in Viet-nam, is admired by voters, who will undoubtedly give him credit for a life well lived. But when it comes to his age, his freewheeling mother is reckoned to be his best advertisement.

“We hope you will join all of us in wishing Senator McCain's mother Roberta and her twin sister Rowena another year of health and happiness. They turned 95 last Wednesday and have not lost a step,” the McCain 2008 team announced proudly.

Roberta, barred by her age from renting a car, bought a battered Mercedes last summer and jauntily set off on a road trip across Europe. The daughter of a wealthy California oilman, she eloped at 19 with a young naval officer who went on to become a four-star admiral. Jack McCain, when asked how he could tell his good-looking wife and her sister apart, liked to joke: “That's their problem.”

She is known to love high heels and elegant Chanel suits and is fiercely proud of her son. “I think the one chance we have of getting a party of integrity is John McCain,” she told the New Yorker soon after the last election.

“I think his only mission in life — and I raise my right hand — is to serve God and his country. We're a religious family. Not to mention” — she broke off, laughing — “that I never go to church and my church is right across the street.”

Roberta McCain's irreverence, as well as her longevity, is shared by her son, which explains why McCain is mistrusted by social conservatives, even though he is a member of the Episcopalian church (the American version of Anglicanism) and pro-life on abortion.

Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said age was not necessarily the most troubling issue for McCain, given that Ronald Reagan was 69 on taking office for the first time.

“People used to say the same thing about Reagan,” Sabato said. “In the end voters always look at the individual, but it is another factor holding him back. He's got a lot of enemies in the Republican party and his other problems are providing synergy with the age issue.”

The upswing in support for Giuliani — on the back of many television interviews last week where he coyly volunteered that he is running but stopped short of making a formal announcement — may turn out to be unsustainable. A fightback against the ascension of the hero of 9/11 has only just begun in earnest on the Republican right.

Richard Land, a prominent Southern Baptist evangelical leader, declared last week that if Giuliani wins, “he will do it without social conservatives”, even in a head-to-head contest against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and erstwhile arch enemy of so-called “values voters”.

It was not just Giuliani's pro-choice stance on abortion, Land cautioned, but his personal life that would turn off evangelical Christians. And perhaps not just religious voters: the same Gallup poll that noted a prejudice against elderly presidents also found that a third of voters would not want to support a candidate who had been married three times, as Giuliani has.

He has also gone through prostate cancer. He and McCain have both promised to release their medical records.

A report by aides in the run-up to his campaign for mayor in 1993 was leaked to the Smoking Gun website last week. It warned even then that Giuliani suffered from the “weirdness factor”, such as his first marriage (later annulled) to his second cousin, and emphasised his independence from “traditional national Republican policies”.

In a brutal article for National Review, a conservative journal, David Freddoso laid into Giuliani for being a “total jerk” who was “mean enough” to tame New York but too mean to be president.

He was a great mayor, Freddoso recalled, but he also “knowingly set out to drag his 14 and 10-year-old children through one of the nastiest and most publicised divorces in history” and responded to the accidental police shooting of a black New Yorker by “illegally releasing the victim's sealed juvenile rap sheet and declaring on television that the deceased ‘isn't an altar boy'”.

Freddoso also noted that he fell out with his chief of police, William Bratton, who pioneered zero tolerance but declared Giuliani to be “an asshole”, perhaps not the best credentials for president in the postGeorge Bush era. If Clinton is said to be too polarising for the White House, the same could apply with equal force to Giuliani.

So far Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Democratic Massachusetts, is failing to make much headway in a field dominated by better-known personalities. Only a few hundred Republican supporters attended his official presidential campaign launch last week, but he is hoping his top-tier rivals will fall by the wayside.

Romney used to be pro-choice but is now antiabortion, leading some to suspect that cynicism rather than conscience is behind his about-turn. But in a potential boost to his fortunes, Land claimed: “Conservatives would see that as, ‘he's seen the light'. They would see it less as a flip-flop than as a journey.”

Dan Schnur, McCain's communications director in the 2000 White House race, believes victory will depend on how well the flawed candidates perform against each other.

“There is an old joke about two friends out camping in the woods. When a bear suddenly appears, one of them laces on his running shoes. ‘What are you doing? You can't outrun the bear,' his friend says. The other replies, ‘No, but I can outrun you'.”

Schnur claims McCain's fractious relationship with the Republican party base presents a more difficult problem than his age. “As long as people believe him to be in reasonable health, his age won't hurt him. Whether it is in business or entertainment, people have become much more accustomed to people working into their seventies.”

Even the war in Iraq could ultimately turn out to McCain's advantage, Schnur added. “If the situation begins to improve there, he benefits more than any other candidate. If it deteriorates

by the latter half of this year, the White House is likely to reconsider its strategy and it becomes equally easy for all candidates to adjust their position.”

Last week's Gallup poll showed that McCain's support for the “surge” of 21,500 extra troops in Iraq was not hurting his chances with Republican voters.

Only 8% said it made them less likely to support him, while 21% said they approved of his decision. But it has hurt McCain with independent voters, who are moving into the antiwar camp.

Just as Clinton announced recently that she would end the war, if elected, so McCain may be leaving himself the wriggle room to make the same claim. While he has hailed the surge as America's “best chance of success”, he believes the extra troops are insufficient for the job and has hinted that, if it fails, there is no point wasting more soldiers' lives in Iraq.

The redoubtable Roberta has never been impolitic enough to express a direct opinion on the war but she believes her son is ideally placed to restore America's reputation.

“Somebody has got to straighten this country out,” she once fumed about the Bush administration, “because people are just losing respect for the whole government.”

Dodging the vote

John McCain spent yesterday on the campaign trail in Iowa instead of attending a Senate vote on the war in Iraq, claiming it was “nothing more than a partisan stunt”. But Democratic candidates including Hillary Clinton hastily rearranged their schedules to support a procedural vote on a resolution criticising the Iraq troop surge.

The House of Representatives last week condemned the surge by 246-182, a vote that will start a fight in Congress to limit funding of the war. It could lead to a constitutional clash over the power of the president to determine wartime policy.

 

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