McCain General Election Message Launch, Take Three (Or So)

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The Drudge siren is whirring, and the Associated Press is reporting: Barack Obama has done it. The primaries are over. Hillary Clinton’s 2008 dreams are dead! Long live her 2008 dreams! More importantly, the endless national saga of recurring CNN election night panels, with all those wall screens and too many laptops, is nearly over. After six full months of intra-party voting, it’s time for the big show.

And John McCain is going to try to seize the moment–again. The first time he debuted a November campaign message on an election night, you will remember, was in February, at an Alexandria, Va., Holiday Inn. He tried to hit Obama in the inspirational kisser: “I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need,” McCain said. But America was not ready for a full-fledged general election battle. So McCain went out on the fundraising circuit and staged a series of themed road shows: The Bio Tour. The Forgotten America Tour. The Global Warming-Is-Bad and Justice Scalia-Is-Good Tours.

Then came McCain’s big 2013 speech on May 15, with its vision of a joyful, success-ridden next four years with McCain at the helm. The war in Iraq would be won, McCain said, Osama Bin Laden would be captured or killed, health care would be more accessible, and McCain would regularly be doing the Tony Blair dance before Congress. The speech was huge in its vision and ambition, and seemed tailored directly for those independent voters in swing states who will decide who gets to measure the next White House curtains. But McCain’s new message barely lasted a cycle. Almost as soon as McCain left the podium, President Bush decided to compare Democrats to Nazi appeasers in a foreign capital, and then McCain’s campaign fell into a black hole of lobbyist stories.

Since that 2013 speech, McCain’s campaign message has focused almost entirely on foreign policy and the reasons he thinks Obama will stink at it. He can come off on the stump a bit negative and stern. He doesn’t always look like he is having a good time. And while drawing a clear contrast with Obama, McCain’s message has a side effect: it highlights his similarities to George W. Bush, who is about as popular at this point as David Archuleta’s father. For a sizable chunk of McCainLand, this is not seen as a winning message. Something had to be done.

A couple Sundays ago, Karl Rove went on ABC’s “This Week” to lay out the challenge. “He needs a clear image of what he would do over the next four years. I think there are six challenges for Senator McCain and the biggest and most important of them is to have a clear and concrete reform agenda that’s aimed at the future.” The key word is “reform.” McCain also met with his old aide, Mike Murphy, who suggested a more uplifting, less bellicose campaign strategy.

And so tonight we will see the debut of the next phase of McCain’s campaign. I have not seen the actual speech yet, but I am pretty comfortable guessing at its general theme, based on his adviser Steve Schmidt’s morning performance on MSNBC. “Sen. McCain has disagreed on issue after issue with President Bush over the last eight years. He is his own man,” Schmidt said.

Expect McCain to remind Americans why they like him (he can be independent and has a record of leading “reform” efforts), while playing down the reasons Americans don’t much like him (he supports an unpopular war and, in some key ways, an unpopular president). He will try to be hopeful and not chiding, exciting but concrete. If this election is about change, McCain will try to make it clear why he is a better change agent than Obama. And he will tell us why he has the chops to get the job done.

The first tests will be if McCain can pull off the speech, and if the cable networks run it live in the midst of all the Democratic ecstasy tonight. The next test will be whether or not McCain can do something he has yet to do this spring: Sustain a single, big-picture, thematic message for few weeks at a time.

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