John McCain Struggles to Find a New Image

The Republican presidential candidate is transforming himself from charming outsider to aggressive tactician. What’s still unclear is whether that’s helping him against Obama.

Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Barack Obama – mega-stars with little substance. John McCain has begun attacking his Democratic opponent with such comparisons recently. “Incredibly egotistical,” one of his advisors said, springing to McCain’s defense after the pictures from Berlin suggested that “the world was waiting for Obama’s candidacy.”

Little remains of the boyishly charming, honorable, friendly jokester McCain since Obama’s return from Europe. The Republican has set a new tone in the battle against his radiant opponent from Chicago.

The new McCain is a sarcastic, caustic, “grumpy old man,” noted Ronald Reagan’s one-time campaign manager, Ed Rollins, referring to the eponymous film comedy. That seems to have made little difference to McCain’s supporters. The latest polls show an unchanged neck-and-neck race between McCain and Obama.

The tone has become increasingly intense since Obama’s trip. Where McCain previously called Obama “naïve” when it came to negotiations with Iran or his plans for withdrawal from Iraq, the Republican now castigates Obama as someone with “absolutely no military experience.” The attacks culminated in the accusation that “Obama would rather lose a war in order to win an election.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was a misleading TV spot in which Obama was accused of canceling a planned visit to wounded American soldiers at the Landstuhl military hospital because he wouldn’t be permitted to bring his press entourage with him. It was claimed that he worked out at a fitness center instead. On Wednesday, the U.S. media quoted the renowned Annenberg Foundation’s verdict that the TV spot “didn’t match the facts.”

Despite this blunder, McCain continues his attack. He appears to have taken Hillary Clinton’s defeat to heart. She began attacking Obama a little too late, according to Dan Schnur, Professor of Campaign Strategy at the University of Southern California. “Obama is most effective when he speaks from lofty heights,” said Schnur. “Clinton showed that his opponent has to bring him down to earth.”

But to resort to such negative campaigning so early is a risky strategy. Especially when it comes from the candidate’s own mouth. “I haven’t even begun yet,” declared McCain, pointing his finger at Obama. A study by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, however, found that more than 90 percent of Obama’s TV spots were positive and made no mention of McCain at all.

McCain, on the other hand, scored only about 60 percent positive. “Those who can’t say anything nice about others clearly have problems themselves,” Obama commented shortly after the latest Paris Hilton comparison.

Even journalists are having problems with McCain’s sense of humor lately. His limited willingness to be interviewed is increasingly becoming a reason to criticize him.

Gone are the days of low-key chats in the “salon” of the “Straight Talk Express,” McCain’s name for his campaign bus. McCain’s latest quip to journalists accompanying him, “What do you little idiots want?” may have been meant in jest, but it appears to have struck a nerve. McCain’s new aggressiveness “could counteract the few advantages he has, namely likeability and a certain independence,” warned CBS.

Added to that, the older man can’t successfully claim his many years are an advantage over the younger Obama. Every American knows, meanwhile, that Obama was just six years old when McCain entered the Vietnamese prison camp. At 72, McCain would be the oldest President to move into the White House.

Thus far, he hasn’t played that card as, for example, Ronald Reagan did in 1984: “I won’t make age an issue,” he said in a debate with Walter Mondale. “I won’t try to use my opponent’s youth and inexperience against him politically.”

McCain recently joked on David Letterman’s Late Night Talk Show, “I’m ancient and I have more scars than Frankenstein.” But it can’t be denied that the younger generation has a lot more in common with a basketball-playing, Blackberry-addicted, 46-year old Obama. A Democratic activist’s popular website, “Things That Are Younger Than John McCain,” bears witness to that.

A survey by the Associated Press and Yahoo cuts right to the chase: When asked what comes to mind first when one hears the name “Obama,” the majority of respondents answered with the slogan “change.” When asked the same about McCain, 20 percent spontaneously associated him with “old.”

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