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McCain Plays Foreign Policy Experience Card

By Reid Wilson

Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani are eager to point out that they have the experience necessary to run for president. Both point out that leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama have not run a city, a state, or anything bigger than their Senate offices. And while both will not say so, they are indicting rivals John McCain and Fred Thompson with the same charge.

The argument may work for Thompson; he spent just eight years in the Senate and three years as a federal prosecutor. But McCain has spent the better part of thirty years in the Senate and House, serves as the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and has merited pundits floating his name for Secretary of Defense. In short, by any measure, no Republican candidate running for president has the foreign policy experience and credentials McCain boasts.

Watch any GOP debate and that experience gap becomes obvious. McCain "does not suffer fools lightly," said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "He's experiencing a lot of frustration with the other Republicans when it comes to talking about Iraq." McCain's frustration portrays him as the only candidate who has finished the book, and who knows the ending; Giuliani and Romney are halfway through and forecasting an ending.

Other candidates, said Baker, "would just as soon not mention [Iraq], while [McCain] is much more committed to a military solution." McCain is willing, if not eager, to make Iraq the central issue to his campaign. "It's the issue around which, if we fail in Iraq, we fail every place else in the Middle East," McCain told Real Clear Politics. It's all the more important to the former Navy airman "because young Americans are in harm's way," he said.

After a summer in which McCain's campaign was rocked by internal turmoil, the senator saw his poll position improve as focus shifted back to Iraq in September. Many believed his association with the war in Iraq was the cause of that uptick, as he is the Republican who most credibly talks about the issue.

That credibility is something McCain plays up, primarily because he has long been critical of the war's execution. "I'm the only candidate who has enough knowledge and depth to have fought against the Rumsfeld strategy," he says, "even when other Republicans were accusing me" of disloyalty.

"He lives and dies on the, 'I'm more truthful,' and 'I've been there and done that,'" said Wake Forest University political communications expert Allan Louden. "McCain's not supporting [President] Bush, even as he is." McCain's support for the surge in Iraq is "laced with heavy criticisms," he said. To Republican voters tired of the war's mismanagement, "there is an appeal to that."

Contrast McCain's image on the war in Iraq with that of Romney, Giuliani or Thompson and McCain comes out ahead. Thompson, said Louden, seems inexperienced on foreign policy. Romney appears too slick and falsly optimistic. And Giuliani's emphasis on terrorism through the prism of September 11th is "one-note."

McCain's depth of knowledge and experience, from his time as a military man and in Congress, fosters a much stronger image. He takes issue with other candidates' lack of experience, most notably Romney's. "I'm frankly very encouraged by the events of the last seven or eight months," McCain says, speaking of the troop surge. "Governor Romney said, 'Apparently it's working.' It is working!"

Despite the bounce McCain received in September, he remains far behind front-runners in state and national polls. But, thanks to his prime target, Romney, McCain may have an opportunity to climb back into the race. Romney's big spending in Iowa has scared Giuliani into barely competing in the Hawkeye State, preferring instead to make his stand in much friendlier New Hampshire. Thompson has yet to make his presence felt in Iowa either.

Those absences leave a big void that McCain hopes to fill. His camp recently sent two mailings to Iowa caucus-goers, followed by automated telephone calls with a recorded message from McCain himself. "We're trying to compete everywhere," McCain said. "We recognize how important particularly the three early states are." McCain's Iowa state director, Jon Seaton, said he expects a "fairly aggressive" mail program to continue through the caucuses.

McCain would have a difficult time outpacing Romney in Iowa, but he might not have to. By simply placing second in a state many assume is impossibly hostile to him, McCain could benefit from a big boost going into his real target, New Hampshire. And while Romney and Giuliani are contesting the first primary state, McCain still sees the enthusiasm for his candidacy that existed in 2000. "I knew, on a Friday night when there was a Red Sox game in the [American League Championship] Series, and we still had a big turnout, that we were doing pretty well."

It also helps, in some ways, that Romney and Giuliani are aiming more at each other in New Hampshire. "Conventional wisdom, [McCain] has no chance," said Louden. But if Romney and Giuliani begin attacking each other, "he'll be what's left over." After this summer, "you'd think this collapse [of the campaign] will keep collapsing, but that hasn't happened."

Thanks to the war in Iraq, McCain is sticking around, and has even made something of a comeback. The campaign recognizes the success, and judging from McCain's attitude, he will continue, and likely sharpen, the distinctions. "I think I'm the most experienced and qualified, but I certainly respect the others," McCain told Real Clear Politics. "They just don't have the experience."

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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