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Originally published Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Floyd J. McKay / Guest columnist

McCain's sounding a lot like Bush

JUST when he thought he would get a breather as nominee-apparent, John McCain finds being No. 1 has some baggage as well. With the Republican nomination...

Special to The Times

JUST when he thought he would get a breather as nominee-apparent, John McCain finds being No. 1 has some baggage as well.

With the Republican nomination locked but the Democratic race tied, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have targeted McCain.

Meanwhile, the formidable Republican attack machine has no clear target — strategies to oppose Clinton or Obama will be quite different. The GOP has been running against Hillary forever and knows where all the old Clinton baggage is stowed. Obama is another matter; the data mining is in progress.

Democrats have moved swiftly to link McCain with George W. Bush, which would have been difficult a few years ago but now has greater plausibility.

Without Bush on the ticket, McCain has become Bush without evangelical Christians. He reversed himself (flip-flopped!) on tax cuts for the wealthy and now supports making them permanent. Don't expect him to reverse himself and support torture, but do expect him to ratchet up the "Dems are soft on terror" rhetoric so beloved by GOP strategists.

In the immediate future, McCain must figure out what to do with Mike Huckabee's base. McCain's big delegate lead is due in large measure to GOP winner-take-all rules, which ignore Huckabee's strong second-place finishes in many states. (In Virginia, McCain won 50-41 but got all 60 delegates.)

McCain's already against abortion, but not as predictable on a variety of other issues important to evangelicals. Embracing Huckabee's views will cost McCain independent supporters, particularly if Obama is the Democratic nominee.

Huckabee continues to bedevil McCain, but buying Huckabee off with the VP slot would also force attention on the fact that McCain will be 72 this August, and he bears the scars of Vietnam War torture and skin cancer. Would a majority of Americans want a man with Huckabee's opinions a breath away from the Oval Office? Doubtful.

McCain reminds me of the 1964 Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater, whom McCain followed into the Senate.

Although Goldwater was from a pioneer family and McCain found Arizona only after his Navy career, both were military careerists, wealthy (Goldwater from family, McCain from a second marriage), blunt-spoken and secular. Goldwater never expected to win, and retired to the Senate where he was a force for traditional Republican conservatism.

His legacy was beginning the migration of Southern whites from Democrat to Republican. McCain's legacy is still being written, but for now he is the man who exposed the vulnerability of a Bush strategy without a Bush.

McCain nails down only one of Bush's three core constituencies: the professional military/national-security complex. He lacks evangelical Christians and many small-government Taft Republicans. Will he move toward those groups or will they move toward him?

Democrats cannot really outflank McCain with his strongest base; neither Clinton nor Obama can be tough enough to steal votes with the professional military and those who live off defense contracts.

If Democrats try to do that, they play into another campaign based on fear and military strength. And they lose, again. John Kerry's military career far out-trumped Bush's, but Republicans Swift-boated Kerry and won on a fear campaign.

Another campaign based on fear allows America's enemies to set the agenda. A terrorist — or simply a homegrown nut — manages to set off a bomb in October, and the entire election agenda shifts. The criterion for Day One becomes commander in chief. Salute the old warrior.

Clinton is being lured into this trap, flexing national-security muscles. She has performed well on the Senate Armed Services Committee, but won't outpoll the military hero among the white male electorate that is most attracted to national security.

Obama takes a riskier tack, but ultimately more promising. He is betting that Americans are ready to move on from the politics of fear and an aggressive foreign policy. He must make the case that he — or any American president — will strike against terror, but that not all candidates can inspire us to reclaim our heritage from what reaction to terror has done in the past seven years.

This message resonates particularly with young voters, who have the energy and idealism to campaign for a candidate in the fall in ways I have not seen since the ill-fated 1968 campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

If they are not denied by the jaded veterans who are superdelegates, they will be ready to go on Day One after the Democratic convention in July. But they are unlikely to respond to a "tougher than thou" candidate; nor are most American voters in 2008.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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