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17 April 2008

President McCain? It could happen

The Republican candidate has been the "forgotten man" of the race. Yet there is a good chance he wil

By Andrew Stephen

So Barack Obama is an elitist after all. New Statesman readers already knew that he went to one of the country’s most exclusive private schools, but most Americans did not. It took a 60-year-old Obama groupie, furious that the Obama camp had nonetheless behaved haughtily towards her, to seek revenge by leaking her secretly taped recording of Obama, speaking when he thought the masses were not listening. Hillary Clinton, the only one of this year’s three presidential contenders who went to a state high school, immediately saw the opening she had been longing for: an opportunity to depict Obama as the privileged yuppie he is, without giving her rival’s camp an opportunity to paint her yet again as racist.

This is a truly surreal election campaign, though, and it only became a real issue when John McCain jumped into the fray on Monday. McCain? Yes: while America and the world has been engrossed by the titanic battle between Obama and Clinton, poor McCain has virtually become the forgotten man of American politics. Yet until April 14, the polls had been continually predicting that he, rather than Obama or Clinton, would actually be the candidate who is elected as the 44th US president on 4 November. “I think those comments [were] elitist,” he, too, said of Obama.

In reality, which candidate is actually ahead of the others is almost impossible to say. The massive state of Pennsylvania holds its primaries on 22 April and there are nine other primaries or caucuses to come before 3 June, but it is increasingly clear that the only votes that will really matter from now until November are those of the 795 or so Democratic “super-delegates”. They, in effect, will decide who McCain’s rival will be, and will naturally opt for the one they think most likely to beat McCain. You might think that a man representing the Republican party of George W Bush, whose approval ratings have just plunged to an all-time low of 28.3 per cent, would be doomed this November. Yet from the moment McCain became the Republican’s presumptive presidential candidate on 4 March, national polling nearly always had him beating both Democrats, with Obama usually faring slightly better than Clinton but only to a statistically insignificant extent.

Then, on April 14, Gallup came out with a new tracking poll carried out during the previous four days – and, for the first time, Obama had beat McCain by two percentage points, with Clinton the victor by one. If you amalgamate the findings of the five major polling organisations that I most closely follow, however, McCain is still 0.4 of a percentage point ahead of Obama and beating Clinton by 0.8 per cent.

In other words, politics here is now not only divisive but bizarrely volatile; the latest poll by the American Research Group had Clinton trouncing Obama in Pennsylvania on Tuesday by 57-37, while Gallup was predicting the very same day that Obama would beat Clinton by 50-40 in the same election. The slightest mis-step by any candidate, just one wrong word whispered in the wrong place, could consign him or her to oblivion.

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I have had personal dealings with all three candidates and – as is invariably the case with politicians everywhere – their real personas are very different from their public images; even the precise opposites. Perhaps, of all three, it is McCain whose public image as decent straight-talker is closest to reality. I first met him a decade or so ago and immediately discovered why he gets such good press: within five seconds he had called me “Andrew” twice, as though I was one of his oldest friends. That is why countless journalists have been almost as starry-eyed over McCain as they currently are over Obama; McCain’s cultivation and ready availability to the media have paid off ever since he was elected to the House in 1982, and then as senator for Arizona four years later.

The conventional wisdom in Washington – which is always wrong – is that the Obama-Clinton prizefight is wreaking untold damage on the Democrats, while McCain has been handed the luxury of being able to draw up battle plans and start raising funds. I suspect the reverse is true.

Had the Democratic nomination been settled, McCain would have been under much more scrutiny – and his ratings would have speedily plummeted. His shortcomings would have been ruthlessly exposed. His great strength, for example, is supposed to be in foreign affairs and national security; but one of his many recent gaffes is that he appeared to not know the difference between Shias and Sunnis – a show of ignorance that would have immediately sunk Obama or Clinton.

His first television campaign ad came out the other day virtually unnoticed, but it immediately illustrated what his campaign strategy will be. Forty seconds into the ad, the caption “Time For A Real Hero” comes up, followed by a voice intoning, “Has he walked the walk?” Modern footage of McCain then switches dramatically to grainy black-and-white film of a much younger US navy lieutenant commander McCain, unshaven and smoking a cigarette – apparently taken by his Vietcong interrogators when he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973, after the A-4E Skyhawk bomber he was piloting in his 23rd bombing mission was shot down over Hanoi.

He gives his rank and number – 624787, six digits I fear we will hear time and time again before the end of the year – and then the voice returns to conclude gravely, “John McCain, the American president Americans have been waiting for.” He had broken both arms and legs when he was ejected from his aircraft and was then brutally tortured; still today he cannot lift either hand above shoulder level, thus making it impossible (for example) to comb his own hair.

I once asked McCain whether he felt guilt about killing civilians in his bombing raids. “Not in the slightest,” he replied. “I was carrying out missions against people who were killing my friends [and] depriving . . . the people of South Vietnam of fundamental freedoms.” He still believes the US could have won the Vietnam War had it not so wimpishly conceded, and has based his 2008 presidential campaign almost entirely on the tenuous premise that the war in Iraq must continue until the US achieves “victory”.

Physical limits

There are two further problems for McCain in his presidential bid: his age and his health. Should he defeat Obama or Clinton in November, he would be 72 when he becomes president – the oldest president to take office in US history. He is not a particularly good public speaker and if his teleprompter fails (as it did in Dallas last month for more than 40 seconds) he can, literally, be at a loss for words. He is not the most robust of men. He looks even more battered and frail in the flesh than he does on television. He seemed thoroughly exhausted when he returned from an overseas trip last month that was designed to show off his international expertise. Most ominous of all, though, is that he received surgery in 2000 to remove a deadly melanoma covering much of the left side of his face. Friends point out that McCain’s mother is still alive and astoundingly lucid at 96, but rarely add that his father died at 70, a year younger than McCain is now.

Politically, McCain’s views can be astonishingly incoherent and sometimes amount to little more than a mish-mash of confused populism. “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should,” he admitted, perhaps not altogether wisely, not long ago. He is wrongly seen by many (especially in Britain) as a moderate because he is progressive on issues like climate change, immigration and torture; but he can also be well to the right even of Ronald Reagan and Bush on a wide range of economic, military and social issues.

The far right nonetheless despise him, its cheerleaders such as Anne Coulter saying they would sooner vote for arch-witch Hillary Clinton than for McCain. Yet it was only last year that McCain sang “bomb, bomb, Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann” in front of an audience in South Carolina – something, again, that would have spelled instant annihilation for Obama or Clinton. Being perceived as a war hero thus cuts a lot of slack for McCain, though previous presidential candidates who ran campaigns based around their military records – such as John Kerry in 2004 and Bob Dole in 1996 – ended up losing.

The choice facing the nation for its 44th president, therefore, is between an elderly and possibly still very ill man with a notoriously unpredictable temper, a 60-year-old woman disliked by many, who brings with her the baggage of 33 years of marriage to Bill Clinton, and a 46-year-old biracial yuppie who would enter the White House with even less political experience than George W Bush had when he became president in 2001.

Probably, the result will hinge on how dirty McCain will allow his campaign to be. He gets on surprisingly well with Hillary Clinton, but an attempt to co-operate on legislation with Barack Obama in the Senate collapsed after just a week. Those hard-headed Democratic super-delegates are already envisaging endless Republican attack ads showing the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s former religious and political adviser, yelling “God damn America” from his pulpit and insisting that American whites invented Aids to kill off blacks. Should the Democrats turn dirty, expect the name “Vicki Iseman” to surface: McCain has a reputation as a womaniser.

However, he also has that enviable knack of a politician who appears likeable without fitting into any predictable political mould, and he has tried to allay fears about his age by hinting that he would serve only one term. Dole, now 84, was two years older than McCain when he ran for the White House, but his hopes collapsed the moment he was filmed slipping and falling from a stage. Before long he was reduced to pitching Viagra in television ads.

Yes, it’s possible to imagine McCain doing something like that before long, too. But, unbelievable though this may seem, it’s also all-too possible that America will elect a president who is a) more gung-ho about the Iraq War than the present one ever was, and b) more laissez-faire on the economy than even Reagan ever was – just as the country is slipping into recession, if not a depression. My friends – McCain’s catch phrase, which we will be hearing endlessly – don’t be surprised by anything that happens in what is fast-becoming the most crazily unpredictable election in American history.