March 13, 2010

McCain fights to escape from Bush shadow

By Michael Abramowitz and Michael D. Shear

— By MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ and MICHAEL D. SHEAR

The Washington Post

BELTON, Mo. — Battling George W. Bush for the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, John McCain lashed out at the Texas governor, criticizing his proposed tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich.

Eight years later, this time running as the Republican presidential nominee, the Arizona senator is again pummeling Bush and his financial policies, as he renews his efforts to demonstrate that he would represent a departure from the current administration.

At virtually every campaign stop, McCain is reprising a line he used last Wednesday in his final debate with Sen. Barack Obama: ''I am not George Bush.'' And in a new television ad, McCain looks into the camera and says, ''The last eight years haven't worked very well, have they?''

As he struggles to pull his campaign out from beneath the shadow of a president whose approval ratings have reached historical lows, McCain is offering some of his toughest criticism of the Bush White House. In recent weeks, he has focused his message on the administration's handling of the nation's financial crisis, suggesting that the Treasury Department has been more interested in ''bailing out the banks'' than helping struggling homeowners avoid foreclosure.

''I am so disturbed that this administration has not done what we have to do, and that is to go out and buy up these bad mortgages,'' McCain told Jewish leaders in a conference call Sunday. Attacks on the White House have also become some of his biggest applause lines on the stump.

Bush is hardly the only problem for McCain. Voters perceive Obama as better prepared to handle the economic crisis, the GOP brand has been severely tarnished in recent years, and McCain is at a huge financial disadvantage.

But nearly half of all voters in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll said McCain would mainly carry on Bush's policies. Among those who would view a McCain presidency as a continuation of the current administration, 90 percent support Obama. And the prized independent voters who link McCain and Bush overwhelmingly tilt toward the Democrat.

But McCain has made progress. Among independents, 54 percent now see the senator as offering a new direction, up from 44 percent before the third debate, where he introduced his new language on Bush.

Among all likely voters, the percentage associating McCain with Bush is less than 50 percent for the first time, at 49 percent. Forty-eight percent said McCain would mainly continue to lead in Bush's footsteps.

After the two waged a fierce campaign for the Republican nomination in 2000, McCain remained a burr in Bush's side, although he strongly supported the Iraq war and came to endorse Bush's tax cuts despite initial misgivings. During his 2008 campaign, McCain has irritated the White House with his coolness, criticizing as a ''failure'' its response to Hurricane Katrina and almost never appearing in public with Bush.

Yet these efforts have done little to convince a skeptical electorate. Even McCain's acknowledgment of Bush's wartime leadership at the Republican National Convention, without mentioning him by name, made listeners unhappy, according to internal GOP focus groups.

Many Democrats doubt that McCain will be able to make enough progress to change the trajectory of the race in the final two weeks, no matter what new rhetoric he may offer. They argue that he dug his own grave when he embraced Republican orthodoxy on the utility of tax cuts to help stimulate economic growth, shifting his own position and embracing the approach Bush pushed aggressively.

''McCain, like Bush, is emerging as someone who makes rapid, gut-level decisions,'' said Bill Galston, a centrist Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton White House and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

McCain spent Monday in Missouri, a critical swing state, where he continued his efforts to sow unease about Obama's economic policies as a plan to redistribute wealth rather than grow the economy.

''I think a lot of blame is put on George Bush that does not deserve to be there,'' said Carol Pappas, 52. ''On the other hand, a lot of Americans are blaming George Bush for the economy, which I disagree with. In order to have a chance in this election, McCain ... has to have them understand that this is not another eight years of what they perceive as bad government.''

Some of the people at a rally here criticized Obama for making more of a connection between Bush and McCain than is warranted. ''He isn't George Bush,'' said Cathy Beck, 49, who runs a small business with her husband. ''I think this has been one of the unfairest campaigns of my lifetime.''

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