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McCain's Last Issue

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During the week of July 20th, Barack Obama visited Afghanistan, Iraq, and several other countries, strengthening his claim to be commander-in-chief material. John McCain spent the same period firing off a barrage of negative ads and comments: "Obama would rather lose a war than an election." The Arizona Senator fears Obama is stealing the issue of national security.

When likely voters are queried about perception of the two candidates, Obama bests McCain in all but one category: by a 46 to 40 percent margin, respondents see the Arizona Senator as being the more "strong and decisive leader." Eighty percent of those queried saw McCain prepared to be "commander in chief of the military," whereas only 55 percent thought Obama was. McCain's strong suit is his alleged national security experience.

Obama's whirlwind world tour strikes directly at McCain's one area of strength. Throughout the week the Democratic presumptive nominee appeared presidential. The mainstream media featured flattering images of him with soldiers, generals, diplomats, and heads of state. The visit to Afghanistan, intended to emphasize Obama's contention that country should be our central focus in the war on terror, coincided with U.S. military assessments that the Afghanistan situation is perilous and more troops are required to battle emboldened Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. The visit to Iraq, intended to emphasize Obama's intent to withdraw most troops according to a 16-month timetable, saw premier Nuri al-Maliki indicating he was in philosophical agreement with Obama's position. Thus, the presumptive Democratic nominee's world tour both established that Obama has the gravitas to become President of the United States and neutralized McCain's national security credentials.

Polls consistently indicate voters are focused on five issues: the economy, energy prices, Iraq, healthcare, and terrorism. Respondents have more confidence in Obama to deal with the economy, energy, and healthcare. The one area where Obama lags behind McCain is "terrorism."

Somewhat surprisingly, the Gallup poll finds Americans split on whether Obama or McCain would do the best job on Iraq. That's paradoxical considering McCain has been a strong advocate of Bush policies in Iraq since 2002, when he was one of the primary cheerleaders for the invasion and famously predicted the war "will be brief." Moreover, Recent polls indicate that 63 percent of Americans feel the invasion of Iraq was a mistake," 60 percent opined "the war on terrorism can be a success without the United States winning the war in Iraq," and 64 percent said "the next president [should] remove most U.S. troops in Iraq within a few months of taking office." However, Americans are conflicted about the surge: 46 percent feel that the U.S. "is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq." The public doesn't want to be in Iraq, but isn't sure what the best way is to get out.

Given these findings, it's not surprising that McCain is hammering Obama on Iraq, distorting his position to be advocating surrender and planning to withdraw troops precipitously regardless of conditions on the ground. McCain has little hope of convincing Americans that his plans for the economy - quit whining - or the energy crisis - drill everywhere -- are superior to those of Obama. Therefore he has to scare them into believing that terrorism is the key issue, Iraq is the cornerstone war, and the surge is the path to victory. This strategy plays to McCain's one area of perceived strength.

Characteristically, Obama made a very specific proposal about Iraq featuring a strategic perspective considering America's overall security objectives. McCain's rebuttal lacked an overarching strategic view. Nonetheless, it took Obama to task for his withdrawal plan, "I am also dismayed that [Obama] never talks about winning the war-only of ending it. But if we don't win the war, our enemies will." The New York Times wisely rejected McCain's proposed Op-Ed submission saying to be acceptable, "the article would have to articulate, in concrete terms, how Senator McCain defines victory in Iraq. It would also have to lay out a clear plan for achieving victory -- with troops levels, timetables and measures for compelling the Iraqis to cooperate."

Trailing in the polls, and in danger of losing national-security, the one issue where he has an advantage over Obama, John McCain has grown desperate. On July 18th, he began running his first negative ad, where he accused Obama of voting "against funding our troops," whereas Obama only voted against funding bills that did not include mandates to withdraw troops from Iraq. Since then McCain's tone has grown increasingly strident and he now routinely suggests Obama is advocating surrender and berates his judgment.

For the next three months, expect Senator McCain's attacks to increase in vehemence as he sees his chances for victory grow increasingly slim.
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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.
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