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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

Has John McCain lost his luster?

WASHINGTON Is John McCain shopworn?

The iconoclastic Arizona senator and former prisoner of war in Vietnam, who has been the choice of Conventional Wisdom to snag the GOP presidential nomination in 2008, is losing clout in some national polls.

After his dynamic run for president in 2000, when he won the hearts of journalists for his sense of humor and tendency to say whatever came into his head on his freewheeling campaign bus tours, Mr. McCain seemingly has lost some of his luster.

The respected Quinnipiac University s so-called thermometer reading taken after the November elections found that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is ahead of Mr. McCain in the polls. Asked to say how they feel about 20 national leaders, 1,623 registered voters nationwide said they rated Mr. Giuliani at 64.2 percent on a scale of 10 to 100. Mr. McCain was third, at 57.7 and new Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a Democrat, was second at 58.8. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton came in at 49, ninth on the list, while Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry came in dead last at 39.6.

Clearly, such early polls are just about meaningless except as chewing gum for the brain. But this one indicates that Mr. McCain has a lot of work to do.

Far more conservative than the media has portrayed him, Mr. McCain worked hard to end the rift his presidential campaign of 2000 caused with President Bush. He also has smoothed over harsh feelings with some conservatives.

So some liberal Republicans, out-of-the-fold Democrats, and independents desperate for a star have become wary of Mr. McCain, wondering whether he is just another go-along-to-get-along pol.

With an increasingly detested war causing Americans to lose confidence, Mr. McCain, a war hero who was a prisoner for five years, has been notable for his support of the war, demanding more U.S. troops be sent to Iraq.

But Mr. McCain is as conflicted as everyone else about what to do in Iraq. He has criticized the administration s handling of the war but suggests that a staggered pull-out would be a disaster. In that case, he says, he would prefer an immediate withdrawal. But which is it? And where would thousands more soldiers come from and how would they be trained and equipped by a military already stretched too thin?

In a speech to conservatives after the election, during which he said Americans still approve of conservative Republicans but feel they lost their principles while ruling the country, Mr. McCain said that hypocrisy is the most obvious of political sins and warned that the people will punish it.

In his last official statement on the war in Iraq in October, Mr. McCain said he supported the position of the Army chief of staff, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, that 141,000 U.S. soldiers should be kept in Iraq through 2010. He also wants to boost troop strength of the Army and Marine Corps by at least 100,000.

In his address after the election, Mr. McCain called for limited government and the rule of law.

He also said, We re in one heck of a mess in Iraq, and the American people told us loud and clear last week that they are not happy with the course of this war. Neither am I. But let s be clear: That s the limit of what they told us about Iraq and the war on terrorism.

He stressed that Americans did not tell politicians to forget those lost on 9/11, or the sacrifices of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to choose a course that would imperil their mission, or abandon friends in remote parts of the world to moral monsters like Osama bin Laden or to apostles of hate like the Taliban.

But later he added, What I cannot do is ask (a U.S. soldier) to return to Iraq, to risk life and limb, so that we might delay our defeat for a few months or a year.

Mr. McCain is going to run for president. He might be elected. But his message on the key problem of our time what to do about Iraq has become garbled. Unless he clarifies what he thinks should be done, and does it soon, Americans feelings for him are not likely to improve.

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986.

Contact her at: amcfeatters@hotmail.com



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