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Support for the war helps to sink McCain

The Baltimore Sun

In what may later be remembered as the last, desperate attempt to save his presidential candidacy, John McCain is expected to reaffirm his support for the Iraq war in a speech to be given today at the Virginia Military Institute.

How far his star has fallen.

Remember Mr. McCain, the media darling whose "Straight Talk Express" bus ran over Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the 2000 New Hampshire primary?

An emerging political phenom, Mr. McCain was poised to become the Republican nominee and, presumably, the 43rd president.

You know the rest: After his allies Swift boated Mr. McCain with nasty push polls in the South Carolina primary, Mr. Bush started calling himself a "reformer with results" (remember that gimmick?) and quickly surged past Mr. McCain and captured the nomination and the presidency.

That turned out to be the first Bush "surge" to ruin Senator McCain's presidential ambitions.

The second came in January, when Mr. McCain again rallied behind the president's decision to escalate the war by adding more than 21,000 troops.

To prove the new policy's merit, Mr. McCain went to Iraq two weeks ago. He visited the Shorja market, proclaiming it safe for shopping.

Never mind that Mr. McCain wore a flak jacket and was surrounded by a 100-member armed delegation, three Blackhawk helicopters and two Apache gunships - after all, that's how I gear up when I go grocery shopping.

When CNN's Wolf Blitzer dared to challenge the senator's assertion that Baghdad is safe to travel, Mr. McCain snarled. "General [David] Petraeus goes out [in Baghdad] almost every day in an unarmed Humvee," the senator said. "I think you ought to catch up. You are giving the old line of three months ago."

Mr. Blitzer followed up this exchange by asking CNN's Baghdad reporter, Michael Ware, to describe the situation on the streets of Baghdad.

"Senator McCain's credibility now on Iraq, which has been so solid to this point, is now being left out hanging to dry," said Mr. Ware. "To suggest that there's any neighborhood in this city where an American can walk freely is beyond ludicrous."

The day after Mr. McCain's market stroll, insurgents kidnapped and shot 21 people from Shorja. Their bodies were found north of Baghdad.

The events at Shorja market occurred the same week that the presidential candidates reported their first-quarter 2007 fundraising totals. Of the top six candidates from the two parties, Mr. McCain finished sixth with $12.5 million in funds.

What happened to the straight talker? Short answer: He jumped on a grenade to save President Bush.

In the early months of this administration, Mr. McCain acted warily toward the president. But after the 9/11 attacks and the start of the Iraq war, his was a loud voice echoing Mr. Bush's war messages. Mr. McCain also stumped hard for the president's re-election in 2004.

And so, McCain the Maverick has disappeared.

Once a renegade reformer promising to change his party and American politics, he had reduced himself to little more than a useful accomplice to an accomplished user.

At VMI today, Mr. McCain will reassert his conviction that the Iraq war can be won. But is anyone listening to him anymore?

Liberals have had enough of Mr. McCain's repeated calls for a few more months to turn the corner in Iraq, conservatives don't like his positions on immigration and campaign finance reform, and all his recent bowing and scraping to folks such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell are turning those in the middle who once cherished his independence into head-scratchers who are puzzled by his pandering.

Even a vendor at the Shorja market is cynical about Mr. McCain's motives. "He is just using this visit for publicity," the vendor told The New York Times. "He is just using it for himself. They'll just take a photo of him at our market and they will just show it in the United States. He will win in America, and we will have nothing."

He's wrong on one count: John McCain isn't going to win anything in next year's Republican primaries. At this point, all the flak jackets and helicopters in the U.S. military cannot save his candidacy from his explosive behavior.

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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