Friday, May 23, 2008

Liberals work to change McCain's image

Liberals work to change McCain's image

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A small knot of counterdemonstrators will greet Sen. John McCain when he arrives in Stockton today for a day of Northern California campaigning and fundraising. But the real anti-McCain action is happening in the media, where labor and liberal activists are starting to get the national press to do what the still-feuding Democratic candidates can't: Focus on the Republican nominee.

On Thursday, the liberal group MoveOn.org will air a national advertisement on CNN urging McCain to fire Charlie Black, a top adviser who has been a longtime lobbyist; McCain and Black have said that Black retired from lobbying in March. (Five others have resigned from McCain's campaign recently because of their lobbyist ties.)

The national press has been slow to focus on the lobbyist story while zooming in on the Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination, but that has begun to change in recent days.

Outlets like the Washington Post and NBC News have published and aired stories on the lobbyist ties of McCain's aides and cited MoveOn's online "fire Black" campaign. Liberal activists see it as a hopeful sign that the national press may end its comfy clinch with McCain. "Because the Democrats are still fighting the primary battle, a lot of us got tired of waiting around," said Cliff Schecter, author of "The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don't Trust Him and Why Independents Shouldn't" - an attempt to debunk the Arizona senator's image as a maverick.

Still, Schecter and others acknowledged it is hard to change the media image of someone who has been in the public spotlight since he was a POW in Vietnam 40 years ago.

Outside groups

Outside groups like MoveOn, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club - though unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns - are nonetheless doing the Democrats' dirty work, as the national media haven't been good multi-taskers when it comes to covering both the Democrats and McCain since he became the presumed GOP nominee.

The most recent weekly survey of campaign coverage by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that while presidential campaign stories dominated the news, only scant attention was dedicated to McCain. Since mid-March, fewer than 10 percent of the respondents to a weekly Pew Research poll say McCain "has been the most visible candidate in the news."

Activists say the lobbyist issue is prompting others to look more closely at McCain's record. A video called "McCain's YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare" produced by filmmaker Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, provides a "video paper trail," as one McCain critic puts it, of how he has changed positions on everything from the economy to his impressions of the Iraq war. It has received nearly a million views in less than a week, making it one of the most popular anti-McCain videos online.

The AFL-CIO, which will sponsor about 50 of today's anti-McCain demonstrators, is pumping out $53 million worth of anti-McCain information to its union members. Dubbed "McCain Revealed," the campaign focuses heavily on Rust Belt states where Obama has fared poorly with working-class voters.

McCain supporters have countered the campaigns by taking on its accusers, primarily MoveOn, whose members have endorsed Obama for president. In a response this week, the Republican National Committee points out that MoveOn created an ad ridiculing Gen. David Petraeus, the Iraq commander, as "General Betray Us" - a move that was roundly criticized by Republicans and Democrats.

Tough sell

Changing the media image of McCain won't be easy, especially among union voters.

Gerald McEntee, chairman of the AFL-CIO's political committee and a Clinton supporter, acknowledged the Arizona Republican's charms. He told the New York Times political blog Wednesday that while Obama is having trouble reaching working-class voters, McCain "can reach these people."

(The AFL-CIO has not endorsed a candidate. Thirteen of its member unions have endorsed Clinton, nine have chosen Obama and 32 remain undecided, said spokesman Steve Smith.)

The key to stopping McCain, say union organizers, is changing his media image.

"Union voters are like everyone else - what they've heard about him is appealing. He's a war hero. He's a maverick. He's a straight shooter," said Steve Smith, an AFL-CIO spokesman. But the maverick and straight shooter tags are not accurate, say critics like Smith.

It's hard to be a maverick when, like McCain, you've voted with your Republican colleagues 88 percent of the time during the current Congress. After McCain discussed his climate-change proposals this month, Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope wrote on his blog, "What's really going on here is that McCain is once again trying to talk the talk without walking the walk." Pope pointed out that McCain's lifetime League of Conservation Voters rating is 24 percent.

Some of McCain's own words have belied his reputation as a maverick. In his February appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference - one of the most prominent gatherings of influential conservatives - McCain said, "My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative." He is a reliable anti-abortion vote and has staked much of his presidential campaign on his continuing support for the war in Iraq - a linchpin of the Bush administration.

Shorthand persists

Yet the media's shorthand for McCain persists, particularly among broadcast journalists. This month, CNN's Jack Cafferty noted McCain's "maverick appeal" on issues like immigration, but didn't add that McCain said earlier this year that he wouldn't vote for his original immigration proposal if it came to the floor of the Senate.

A major reason for that disconnect, say Schecter and others, is that McCain has long curried favor with journalists, particularly since the beginning of his failed 2000 presidential run. Many in the traveling press corps consider McCain to be the most accessible major candidate, as reporters are regularly invited to chat informally with him on his campaign bus.

McCain is also a TV guest booker's dream: Glib, spontaneous and readily available. He's appeared 13 times on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," far more than other politicians. Between 1997 and 2004, McCain appeared on the Sunday morning talk shows 124 times; the next most-popular guest was Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., with 80 guest spots over that span.

McCain hinted that the Obama campaign could learn a few things from the Arizona senator's media relations playbook. After McCain won the Potomac primaries this year, he criticized Obama for not exposing himself "to questions from the press and challenges from voters who ask more from their candidates than an empty promise of 'Trust me, I know better.' "

But Schecter says there is a downside to being so accessible.

"Now, there's a video paper trail to everything he says," and that can be easily passed around online, Schecter said. "That wasn't around 10 years ago."

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