Thursday, April 05, 2007

Iraq Rapidly Becoming an Albatross For 'Mr. Straight Talk' Senator McCain

Arizona Republican Who Wowed the Voters in 2000 Now Finds His Popularity in Free Fall and His '08 Campaign Lagging Behind Rivals in the Money Race -- All Because of His Staunch Backing of Bush's Deeply Unpopular War

In this image released by the U.S. Army, U.S. Republican Senator from Arizona and a presidential hopeful John McCain, center, and Republican Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham, right, listen to the commander of the US forces in Iraq Gen. David <span class=

Senators John McCain of Arizona (center) and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina (right) confer with U.S. Army officers during a fact-finding tour of Iraq by a Republican congressional delegation earlier this week. (Photo: U.S. Army via AP)


By Skeeter Sanders

It's an old American cliche that six months is an eternity in politics. For John McCain, the last six months -- and especially the last six days -- could be described as an eternity in purgatory, if not exactly in hell.

Last October, the Republican senator from Arizona was on a roll. He was considered the early and prohibitive favorite to capture the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. "Mr. Straight Talk," who earned his nickname from his 2000 "Straight Talk Express" presidential campaign, was one of the few Republican presidential contenders with a proven track record of being able to draw support from independents and even from Democrats.

What a difference six months make. McCain's popularity, as measured by nearly every major public-opinion survey in the country, is now in free fall, with independent voters in particular abandoning him in droves.

And in a stunning development, campaign-finance reports made public on Monday show that McCain has fallen behind his GOP presidential rivals in campaign fund-raising, even though the top fund-raiser right now -- former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney -- lags far behind McCain and other GOP contenders in the popularity contest.

McCain's seemingly sudden reversal of fortune is causing some observers to cast doubt about whether the senator will be able to muster enough support to win the Republican nomination.

McCain Caught Between Iraq and a Hard Place

So what has caused the "Straight Talk Express" to derail? Simply put: Iraq, Iraq and Iraq. More specifically, McCain's unswerving support for the U.S. war effort there, despite overwhelming -- and hardening -- public opposition to it.

Political experts agree that McCain remains a top-tier Republican contender and has time to recover. All three leading Republicans are expected to have enough cash to compete in key early states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

But trouble appears to be on the horizon for the McCain camp.

Lisa Graham Keegan, Arizona's former superintendent of public instruction and a longtime McCain supporter, attributed the senator's sharp decline in popularity to McCain's controversial "leadership position" on the Iraq war."

She also attributed McCain's relatively poor showing in the money race to his longstanding personal dislike of fund-raising. "Raising money is not something that he loves to do," Keegan told The Arizona Republic.

"He's got to be there at those [fund-raising] events . . . and he's been pretty focused on Baghdad," Keegan said. "He's got a war that is consuming him right now."

McCain, Touring Iraq, Says New Security Plan Is Working

McCain was on a fact-finding tour of Iraq earlier this week, telling reporters on Sunday he was "cautiously optimistic" after riding with other members of a Republican congressional delegation from Baghdad's airport in armored vehicles under heavy guard to visit the Shorja market in the Iraqi capital.

The market has been hit by numerous bombings, including a February attack that killed 137 people. The delegation said the trips were proof that security was improving in the capital, with McCain chiding the news media for "not giving Americans the whole story" about Iraq.

McCain acknowledged a difficult task lies ahead in Iraq, but he insisted a U.S.-Iraqi security plan was working, citing a recent drop in execution-style sectarian killings, the establishment of security posts throughout the city and Sunni tribal efforts against al-Qaida in the western Anbar province.

Iraqi Merchants Challenge McCain's Claims on Security

But on Monday, Iraqi merchants in the capital's central market challenged the veracity of McCain's account of his visit to the market, saying that it did not represent the current reality in Baghdad, with one dismissing it as "propaganda."

Ali Jassim Faiyad, who owns an appliance shop in the Shorja market, ridiculed McCain's assertion that the new security plan for Baghdad was working and that business in the market was returning to normal.

"What is he talking about?" Faiyad asked The New York Times. "The security procedures were abnormal! They paralyzed the market when they came here. This [the tour] was only for the media!"

Jaafar Moussa Thamir, a merchant who sells electrical appliances at the Shorja market, told The Associated Press that McCain and other members of the congressional delegation greeted some fellow vendors with a few phrases in heavily English-accented Arabic, but the merchant was not impressed.

'They Were Making Fun Of Us'

"They were just making fun of us and paid this visit just for their own interests," said Thamir. "Do they think that when they come and speak few Arabic words in a very bad manner it will make us love them? This country and its society have been destroyed because of them and I hope that they realized that during this visit."

Karim Abdullah, a textile salesman, merchant, said the visiting American congressmen were kept under tight security and accompanied by dozens of U.S. troops, contrary to McCain's assertion that it was business as usual in the market.

"They sealed off the area, put themselves in flak jackets and walked in the middle of tens of armed American soldiers," Abdullah said, even as he praised the visitors for venturing out of the heavily-guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. and British embassies as well as Iraqi government offices. "They are at least better than Iraqi officials who never venture out their Green Zone to talk to normal people and see their problems."

McCain's Credibility at Risk As His Campaign Falls Behind His Rivals

The challenges to McCain's version of conditions in Iraq during his tour threatens to further undermine his standing with the public just as his campaign appears to be faltering. The campaign disclosed Monday that McCain had collected more than $12.5 million during the first three months of the year.

But that figure -- which would have been staggering in past election cycles -- was dwarfed by Romney, whose campaign reported $23 million in primary election contributions, including a $2.35 million loan of his own money.

Romney's first-quarter campaign war chest, which rivals those of Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, is all the more stunning when you consider that Romney has much lower name recognition among voters and ranks near the bottom in opinion polls among GOP contenders.

The Obama campaign stunned everyone Wednesday with an eye-popping report that the first-term senator -- who has electrified voters with a charismatic enthusiasm reminiscent of the late Robert F. Kennedy -- raked in $25 million for his presidential bid in the first three months of 2007, virtually matching Clinton's record-breaking $26 million first-quarter haul. It reinforced Obama's status as a significant threat to Clinton, who'd hoped to financially squeeze her rivals out of contention.

In second place in the GOP money race is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, even though he, like McCain, has not yet formally declared his candidacy. The Republican front-runner in most opinion polls, Giuliani took in more than $15 million in primary cash, including more than $10 million raised last month alone. He also transferred about $2 million from another campaign account for a total of $17 million, with $11 million still on hand.

McCain Must Act Quickly to Prevent Campaign Collapse, Experts Say

"On the Republican side, obviously, everyone agrees the big loser is John McCain," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "That is really an unimpressive total, especially considering how long he's been out there, how well-known he is."

Bruce Merrill, a veteran Arizona State University political scientist and pollster, warned that McCain's poor fund-raising results is a warning sign that his campaign could be in deep trouble if there's no improvement -- and soon.

"The disappointment in the fund-raising is dangerous for him because of his going down in the polls and just the whole tone of his campaign," Merrill said. "It makes his candidacy a little more shaky."

McCain has ordered an overhaul of his fundraising team, with a wholesale shake-up of his campaign staff likely to follow, Fox News Channel reported Wednesday. The conservative-leaning cable network also reported that the senator postponed his formal announcement of his candidacy, which had been scheduled for next week, and will instead deliver a speech about Iraq.

Meanwhile, Giuliani Running Away From the GOP Pack in Public Support

Raising money isn't the only race in which McCain is finding himself far behind. Popular support for the Arizona senator has also fallen dramatically.

A newly-released Zogby International poll, for example, shows Giuliani sharply widening his lead over McCain among Republicans since January -- despite Giuliani's liberal views on the hot-button social issues of abortion and gay rights, although he has backtracked from his earlier support for same-sex marriage.

The telephone survey of 808 likely voters showed the former mayor with a 27 percent to 13 percent lead over McCain. Romney trailed far behind, with only 9 percent support. Other candidates in the GOP race drew less than 2 percent support.

In January, Giuliani's lead over McCain was a much narrower 21 percent to 17 percent. When asked why the widening gap, more than 60 percent of respondents cited McCain's support for the Iraq war as the primary reason for their diminishing support for the Arizona senator.

And in a new CNN/WMUR-TV New Hampshire primary poll relased Wednesday, McCain and Giuliani are tied for first place with 29 percent each among Republican voters in New Hampshire, Romney with 17 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- who's vowed not to run -- showing scant support, with only 2 percent.

The poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, was carried out March 27 through April 3 and has a margin of error was plus or minus 5.5 percentage points.

McCain has freely acknowledged that his unswerving support for the unpopular war -- and especially his support for Bush's highly controversial troop buildup in Iraq -- would cost him support, but insisted that he'd rather lose the election than back away from what he said was a "bedrock principle" of the war in Iraq being the centerpiece of the broader war on terror.

McCain could very well get his wish. The fact that his unwavering support for the war in Iraq is costing him dearly in both the opinion polls and in the campaign money race should trigger loud alarm bells for all other Republicans -- and Democrats, for that matter -- that to stand firm with the president on a war that has become as unpopular as Vietnam is to commit an act of political suicide.

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NOTE TO READERS: Due to the Easter weekend, there will be no blog article posted on Monday, April 9. The next regularly-scheduled edition of "The 'Skeeter Bites Report" will be posted the following Monday, April 16.

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Volume II, Number 17
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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Monday, April 02, 2007

Bush Must Not Be Allowed to Pass Iraq War Onto His Successor

Whether He Likes it or Not, the U.S. War That Started on Bush's Watch Must End on Bush's Watch -- Or There Will Be Political Hell to Pay for Both Major Parties

PLUS: A 'Northern Exposure' Update on the Quebec Provincial Election

By Skeeter Sanders

If President Bush thinks that the war in Iraq that he started in 2003 will end during the tenure of his successor, he'd better think again.

To be sure, the president has vowed to veto any bill pertaining to the war that contains a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And to be sure, the Democrats who now control Congress lack the two-thirds majorities in Congress required to override it.

But there will be a deadline imposed to bring our troops home from Iraq before the November 2008 election, whether the president likes it or not. The political calendar will impose it on him, and there's nothing he can do to stop it.

Because he's barred by the Constitution from seeking a third term in the White House, Bush will never have to face the voters again -- and he knows it. Freed from re-election pressure, Bush doesn't have to worry about incurring the wrath of the voters anymore.

The same cannot be said, however, for the president's fellow Republicans in Congress -- or for those Republicans seeking to become his successor. They must face the judgement of the electorate on November 4, 2008 -- and if American troops are still spilling their blood in Iraq by the time the Republicans hold their national convention in August of next year, the GOP can kiss the White House goodbye and forget about taking back Capitol Hill.

Sooner or Later, Republicans Must Bow to the Will of the People on Iraq

It's only a matter of time before election-year pressure to bring our troops home will bear down on the Republicans. Indeed,
with public opinion polls showing a nearly two-thirds majority of Americans opposed to the four-year-old conflict -- and that the opposition is hardening as the sectarian violence in Iraq escalates -- cracks already are beginning to show in the GOP's defiant show of resolve to stand by their commander-in-chief.

In one of the highest-level ruptures of the president's inner circle, the chief strategist of Bush's 2004 re-election campaign broke ranks with him Sunday, declaring in a newspaper interview that he had lost faith in the president over Iraq and other issues.

Matthew Dowd, a former Democrat and a polling expert who switched parties to become a Republican and who served as a senior strategist in Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, told The New York Times that Bush must face up to Americans' growing disillusionment with the war.

Dowd said he had found himself agreeing with calls by Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), Bush's opponent in 2004, for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. "If the American public says they're done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want," Dowd said. "They're saying, 'Get out of Iraq."'

He also cited the administration's bungled handling of the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Bush's refusal to meet Cindy Sheehan, who had lost a son in Iraq and led a protest outside Bush's Texas ranch.

"I had finally come to the conclusion that maybe all these things along do add up," Dowd told The Times. "That it's not the same, it's not the person I thought."

Although some other administration officials have expressed similar views over the years, the newspaper said Dowd is the first member of Bush's famously loyal inner circle to break so publicly with him.

Bush 'In a Bubble,' Secluded From Outside World, Ex-Aide Says

Dowd said he had been attracted to Bush by his ability as Texas governor to work across party lines. With Texas governors constitutionally lacking many executive powers that their counterparts in the other 49 states enjoy -- and with Democrats in control of the Texas legislature throughout his six years in the governor's mansion -- Bush had little choice.

But with Congress firmly under the control of his own party for his first six years in the White House, Bush never sought to reach out across party lines as president and instead became isolated with his views hardening.

No longer having a "rubber stamp" on Capitol Hill after the Democrats took back Congress last November -- ending 12 years of GOP control -- a siege mentality has gripped the Bush White House, not only over the war, but also over mounting White House scandals. "I really like him, which is why I'm so disappointed in things," Dowd said of the president. "I think he's become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in."

One reason why Bush has been so adamant, aside from not having to face the voters again, is the fact that support for the war among his Republican and conservative base remains rock-solid.

But it's only a matter of time before Capitol Hill Republicans seeking re-election next year -- not to mention GOP candidates seeking to succeed Bush in the White House -- will be forced to confront a cold political reality: That the GOP base makes up only one-third of the electorate. More importantly, virtually every major opinion survey shows that independent voters -- whom neither of the two major parties can win in 2008 without -- have turned solidly against the war by a two-to-one margin.

For Both Parties, Nothing Will Alienate the Voters More Than Failure to Bring Our Troops Home

Against that backdrop, none of the six most prominent candidates running for the White House except Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) is willing to say publicly what he or she would do as president if the war in Iraq is still going on -- and U.S. troops are still fighting and dying in it -- by the time he or she takes office on January 20, 2009.

But privately, none of the candidates -- including McCain -- want to inherit the war from Bush, either. And neither party wants the war to still be dragging on by the time of their national conventions next year.

For congressional Democrats, their credibility with the voters is at stake as well. Handed control of Congress last November primarily because of public disgust with the war, the Democrats are under tremendous pressure from their constituents -- and more importantly, the independent voters who put them in power on Capitol Hill after 12 years in the minority -- to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq as soon as possible.

So the clock is ticking. U.S. troops must be home from Iraq by the summer of next year. if they're not, both parties are going to have hell to pay with the voters.

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NORTHERN EXPOSURE: As Expected, Quebec's Pro-Independence Party Suffers Its Worst Loss in Decades -- But the Ruling Liberals Also Get Spanked

People in northern New England, eastern Ontario and the western Atlantic Provinces can be forgiven if they thought they felt an earthquake last Monday night. No, it wasn't a literal shaking of the ground. Rather, it was a massive political earthquake that rocked the region with the impact of a 7.0 temblor and whose epicenter was located in Canada's French-speaking province of Quebec.

In the biggest political shift in 31 years, Quebec's pro-independence Parti Quebecois suffered its worst electoral defeat since 1979 -- while at the same time, the province's ruling Liberal Party was barely able to hang on to power, losing its majority in the provincial legislature to a third, conservative party that until last Monday had been only a bit player in Quebec politics.

The conservative Parti Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ) shocked pundits and prognosticators by not only denying the Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest a legislative majority, but even more shocking, it ousted the PQ as the official Opposition.

When the National Assembly, as the Quebec legislature is officially known, convenes under its new alignment, the Liberals, which previously held a comfortable majority of 74 seats, will have only 48. The ADQ, led by Mario Dumont, will become the official opposition with 41 seats. It held only five seats going into the election. Bringing up the rear is the PQ, which will hold 36 seats, down from its 43 seats in the old legislature.

Sixty-three seats are needed for a majority in the 125-seat chamber. Only once before in its history has Quebec had a minority government -- in 1878 -- and that government lasted only 18 months.

This election is an historic watershed in another important way. Not only has the PQ suffered its worst defeat since it first contested in the 1970 election following its founding by Rene Levesque in 1968, but it fell to third place for the first time in its history. Nearly two out of every three Quebec voters cast their ballots against the sovereigntist party, exit polls showed.

Was PQ Leader's Homosexuality a Factor in Party's Loss. . .

Perhaps Quebecers were not ready for an openly gay premier, said a PQ candidate who was defeated. PQ leader Andre Boisclair is openly gay and his homosexuality became an issue during the campaign when a radio "shock jock" proclaimed the PQ a "club de tapettes" ("Faggots' club") and said local factory workers in his listening area wouldn't vote for a gay leader.

"Shock jock" Louis Champagne of French-language CKRS Radio inthe heart of the PQ's stronghold of Saguenay-Lac St. Jean, apologized for his remarks after a one-week suspension, but defeated PQ candidate Rachel Gagnon said she believes Boisclair's homosexuality may have been an issue.

"We have to ask ourselves whether Quebecers, generally, are ready to live with homosexuality," said Gagnon, who lost her bid for a seat in the National Assembly, in a rural district north of Montreal.

But another gay PQ candidate, Sylvain Gaudreault -- who was outed on the air during a March 5 interview with Champagne -- easily won election in the very same PQ stronghold that Champagne asserted Gaudreault would lose because of his homosexuality.

. . .Or Are Quebecers Fed Up With 40-Year-Old Sovereignty Debate?

PQ members gathered in Quebec City Thursday to try and figure out why their party lost so badly -- with many pointing fingers at Boisclair's leadership. But only one PQ stalwart was willing to admit publicly that Quebec voters, after 40 years, had become fed up with the divide between independence and federalism.

Pointing to Boisclair's ill-timed remarks just days before the election that the PQ would hold a sovereignty referendum even if it won only a minority government, Francois Legault, a longtime PQ member of the assembly, admitted that,"We have to accept that the population is not ready to discuss a referendum."

Minority Government May Not Run Smoothly

Meanwhile, Dumont warned Premier Charest on Thursday he shouldn't count on the ADQ to help the minority government pass the provincial budget when the National Assembly resumes sitting in May.

"We certainly will not be supporting the February budget," he told reporters.

Dumont said the federal budget changed things for Quebec, along with Charest's decision to use $700 million in federal money ($648 million U.S.) to cut income taxes in Quebec. "I think they have to go back to the desk and redo their work and we'll look at their proposals," Dumont said.

For their part, the Liberals returned to the provincial capital in a sombre mood after losing 24 seats. "It's a result nobody expected," Charest said.

Monique Jerome-Forget, president of the treasury board, while acknowledging that two-thirds of Quebecers voted against the PQ, an even larger majority -- 70 per cent -- voted against the Liberal government, noting that the ADQ took nearly three times as many seats away from the Liberals than from the PQ.

"We underestimated the Action Democratique," she said. "I sensed from the public some impatience with our government and the kind of debate that's been going on in Quebec."

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Volume II, Number 16
Copyright 2007, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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