Comparing Sen. John McCain's 2008 Republican presidential campaign to his failed 2000 bid, Politico senior political writer Jonathan Martin stated: "There is another reason why McCain's fared better this time -- he reluctantly allowed his campaign to spotlight his 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton." However, numerous reports in 2000 noted the prominent role McCain's experience as a POW in Vietnam played in his first presidential campaign.
In a February 4 article posted on Politico.com, Politico senior political writer Jonathan Martin compared Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) 2008 Republican presidential campaign to his failed bid for the nomination in 2000 by asserting: "There is another reason why McCain's fared better this time -- he reluctantly allowed his campaign to spotlight his 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton." Martin continued: "In television and radio commercials as well as mail pieces, McCain strategists such as ad-man Mark McKinnon have portrayed the searing images of a battered young lieutenant commander being held captive in a waking nightmare." But contrary to Martin's suggestion that McCain did not "spotlight" his military experience and years as a POW in Vietnam, as noted in numerous reports in 2000, McCain's experience as a POW in Vietnam played a prominent role in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination and was used in his campaign advertisements and stump speeches that year.
In a February 4 Time magazine article, James Carney wrote that "McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues" and noted the role that McCain's Vietnam experience played in his bid for the presidency in 2000:
But Conservative and Independent voters have the same question about McCain: What kind of Republican is he? In 2000, when the U.S. was at peace and the economy was luxuriating in the frothy end days of the first Internet boom, McCain's first campaign was about character and biography much more than issues. McCain was the authentic hero, the fighter pilot who had been shot down over Hanoi and spent more than five years as a prisoner of war. He was the reformer and the straight talker, the rare politician who -- perhaps because of his experience as a POW-- wasn't going to compromise his principles or hold his tongue to please his party. He was also, at his core, still the rowdy, runty, red-tempered plebe who finished near the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy despite an IQ of 133. McCain became a symbol in 2000 of courage and candor. Few took close looks at his policy positions. It was almost enough to get him the Republican nomination.
A January 31, 2000, article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (accessed via the Nexis database) describing McCain's use of his experience as a POW in Vietnam reported:
McCain, who once downplayed his prisoner-of-war experiences in Vietnam, now emphasizes his military service. He pleaded with veterans at one stop yesterday to "go on one more mission" to help him win. A new campaign ad says that he is the only one in the campaign with the military experience to be president.
An item in the February 11, 2000, National Review's "Washington Bulletin" reported on the negative attack ads featured during the campaign 2000 Republican presidential campaign and noted:
Today, for instance, the McCain campaign sent out a press release accusing the Bush campaign of making a 14-year-old boy cry with its negative "push polling." This same release announced a new ad suggesting that, just as the communists tortured McCain in Vietnam, now the special interests are "coming after him here in South Carolina because John McCain will take the government away from the special interests and give it back to you."
In a February 20, 2000, Washington Post article (accessed via Nexis), Howard Kurtz reported that "[i]n Michigan, McCain has run ads that highlight his background as a Navy pilot shot down in Vietnam. The ads attack the 'special interests' and declare McCain 'ready to lead.' "
Furthermore, a "Campaign 2000 ad watch" item in the February 25, 2000, Los Angeles Times (accessed via Nexis) featured the text of the McCain ad titled "Leader," which highlighted his experience as a POW in Vietnam:
Text: "A young Navy pilot who volunteered for duty in Vietnam, John McCain was shot down over Hanoi. McCain refused early release from prison, where he suffered repeated beatings and was held for 5 1/2 years.
He returned home just as devoted to his country, taking on the establishment. (McCain on camera) 'I'll give the government back to you, and I promise you that.' (voice-over) Ready to be president and leader of the free world. John McCain -- character courage -- for president."
The Boston Globe (accessed via Nexis) reported on March 1, 2000, that "John McCain ran a campaign ad about the Christmas sermon he wrote for fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam 30 years ago." McCain also reportedly ran a television ad featuring Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) "accusing [then-President Bill] Clinton of betraying the military" and "mention[ing] McCain's time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam."
From Martin's February 4 Politico.com article:
For starters, and to state the obvious, McCain has benefited and continues to benefit from running in a multi-candidate field. In every state he's won, his rivals have split the conservative, more ideologically-oriented vote enabling McCain to succeed in a plurality race.
The past eight years have brought other differences, however, that have seemed to accentuate the core McCain.
First, peace isn't taken for granted. A down-home governor with a familiar last name sold well in a time of tranquility. A scarred (literally) old Navy salt may be more reassuring in a time of peril.
The personality and strategy of McCain's chief rival this time around also have something to do with it.
"Whether it's fair or not, [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney can come off as overly calculated," notes Dan Schnur, who like [Todd] Harris worked for McCain in 2000, but is unaligned this campaign. "McCain couldn't ask for a better mirror opposite."
There is another reason why McCain's fared better this time -- he's reluctantly allowed his campaign to spotlight his 5 1/2 years in the Hanoi Hilton.
In television and radio commercials as well as mail pieces, McCain strategists such as ad-man Mark McKinnon have portrayed the searing images of a battered young lieutenant commander being held captive in a waking nightmare.
"We had to wrestle with him to let us use that POW footage," notes McKinnon, who worked on both of President Bush's campaigns. "But this is a different time and a different election. And [the footage] matches to the narrative that we're trying to tell about McCain -- that he has the fortitude and character to deal with the face of terror."
So the unique circumstances of this election appear to have aligned to allow McCain, despite his obvious flaws on issues with the party base, to now be on the verge of seizing the nomination through the strength of his character-based appeal.
Now his sympathizers hope that it will only get easier in November, with even fewer ideologically-oriented voters coming to the polls.
"The general election is nothing if not ultimately a personality contest," quips Harris.