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Liberal groups take aim at McCain's image
San Francisco Chronicle


May 25, 2008

Labor and liberal activists are starting to get the national press to do what the still-feuding Democratic candidates can't: Focus on Republican nominee John McCain.

On Thursday, the liberal group began airing a national advertisement on CNN urging McCain to fire Charlie Black, a top adviser who has been a longtime lobbyist; McCain and Black have said that Black retired from lobbying in March. (Five others have resigned from McCain's campaign recently because of their lobbyist ties.)

The national press has been slow to focus on the lobbyist story while zooming in on the Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton battle for the Democratic nomination, but that has begun to change in recent days.

Outlets like the Washington Post and NBC News have published and aired stories on the lobbyist ties of McCain's aides and cited MoveOn's online "fire Black" campaign. "Because the Democrats are still fighting the primary battle, a lot of us got tired of waiting around," said Cliff Schecter, author of "The Real McCain: Why Conservatives Don't Trust Him and Why Independents Shouldn't" -- an attempt to debunk the Arizona senator's image as a maverick.

Still, Schecter and others acknowledged it is hard to change the media image of someone who has been in the public spotlight since he was a POW in Vietnam 40 years ago.

Outside groups like MoveOn, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra Club -- though unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns -- are nonetheless doing the Democrats' dirty work.

The most recent weekly survey of campaign coverage by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that while presidential campaign stories dominated the news, only scant attention was dedicated to McCain. Since mid-March, fewer than 10 percent of the respondents to a weekly Pew Research poll say McCain "has been the most visible candidate in the news."

Activists say the lobbyist issue is prompting others to look more closely at McCain's record. A video called "McCain's YouTube Problem Just Became a Nightmare" produced by filmmaker Robert Greenwald's Brave New Films, provides a "video paper trail," as one McCain critic puts it, of how he has changed positions on everything from the economy to his impressions of the Iraq war. It has received nearly a million views in less than a week, making it one of the most popular anti-McCain videos online.

The AFL-CIO is pumping out $53 million worth of anti-McCain information to its union members. Dubbed "McCain Revealed," the campaign focuses heavily on Rust Belt states where Obama has fared poorly with working-class voters.

McCain supporters have countered the campaigns by taking on its accusers, primarily MoveOn, whose members have endorsed Obama for president. In a response this week, the Republican National Committee points out that MoveOn created an ad ridiculing Gen. David Petraeus, the Iraq commander, as "General Betray Us" -- a move that was roundly criticized by Republicans and Democrats.

Changing the media image of McCain won't be easy, especially among union voters.

Gerald McEntee, chairman of the AFL-CIO's political committee and a Clinton supporter, acknowledged the Arizona Republican's charms. He told the New York Times political blog Wednesday that while Obama is having trouble reaching working-class voters, McCain "can reach these people."

The key to stopping McCain, say union organizers, is changing his media image.

"Union voters are like everyone else -- what they've heard about him is appealing. He's a war hero. He's a maverick. He's a straight shooter," said Steve Smith, an AFL-CIO spokesman. But the maverick and straight shooter tags are not accurate, say critics like Smith.

Some of McCain's own words have belied his reputation as a maverick. In his February appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference -- one of the most prominent gatherings of influential conservatives -- McCain said, "My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative." He is a reliable anti-abortion vote and has staked much of his presidential campaign on his continuing support for the war in Iraq -- a linchpin of the Bush administration.

Yet the media's shorthand for McCain persists, particularly among broadcast journalists. This month, CNN's Jack Cafferty noted McCain's "maverick appeal" on issues like immigration, but didn't add that McCain said earlier this year that he wouldn't vote for his original immigration proposal if it came to the floor of the Senate.

A major reason for that disconnect, say Schecter and others, is that McCain has long curried favor with journalists, particularly since the beginning of his failed 2000 presidential run. Many in the traveling press corps consider McCain to be the most accessible major candidate, as reporters are regularly invited to chat informally with him on his campaign bus.


E-mail Joe Garofoli at jgarofoli(at)
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