John McCain: Everyone’s favorite target

Everyone, it seems, is jabbing at John McCain these days — from a Republican rival for the presidential nomination to several potential Democratic candidates.

“When you’re the perceived front-runner, your head’s above the political trench and everyone takes shots at you,” said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and presidential campaign veteran.

McCain, considered by many to be the Republican to beat, has largely remained silent about the criticism, which is somewhat uncharacteristic for the outspoken Arizona senator. His presidential exploratory committee on Wednesday declined to comment on the spate of reproaches over his stands on gay marriage and the Iraq war.

“He doesn’t have to respond yet,” said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant. “If I were advising McCain, I’d say wait until somebody makes a dent.”

No doubt the assailing of McCain is only just beginning and he surely won’t let the charges go unanswered indefinitely. The first primary contests are still a year away and the general election isn’t until November 2008.

Still, attacking McCain, a political celebrity, this early allows lesser-known prospective candidates of all political stripes to raise their profiles and generate media coverage — if even for one news cycle.

Republican critics, for their part, aim to chip away at McCain’s credentials and raise questions about his positions to ensure he doesn’t solidify his status as the one to beat.

Democratic foes, in the meantime, go after McCain in hopes of projecting strength and showing that they can take on the Republican heavyweight, particularly on the national security issues that are considered McCain’s forte.

The 2006 midterm campaign was barely over when a potential aspirant for the GOP presidential nomination, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, called McCain “disingenuous” on gay marriage. McCain has irked social conservatives with his opposition to a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. He says the issue should be left to the states.

“I believe in the sanctity and unique role of marriage between man and woman, but I certainly don’t believe in discriminating against any American,” McCain said in November. He added: “I believe that gay marriage should not be legal.”

Seeking to be seen as more conservative than McCain on issues dear to the right flank, Romney seized on the comments, saying: “That’s his position, and in my opinion, it’s disingenuous.

“Look, if somebody says they’re in favor of gay marriage, I respect that view. If someone says, like I do, that I oppose same-sex marriage, I respect that view. But those who try and pretend to have it both ways, I find it to be disingenuous,” Romney added.

Never mind that Romney’s own position on gay marriage has been questioned in recent weeks — after a 1994 letter surfaced from his unsuccessful Senate challenge to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. In it, Romney pledged to be more effective in promoting the gay agenda than the liberal senator.

More recently, Democrats who are running for president have assailed McCain over his call for President Bush to send tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq — a stance that conflicts sharply with public opinion about the unpopular war.

Just after announcing a second presidential run last week, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards criticized McCain’s position on Iraq — and gave it a name.

“It would be an enormous mistake to adopt the McCain doctrine and escalate the war,” Edwards said in Iowa, the first state to hold a presidential caucus. He later added that while he knows and likes McCain, the senator is “dead wrong.”

A few weeks earlier, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack made the same argument in New Hampshire, home to the nation’s first primary, during his campaign kickoff, saying: “I fundamentally disagree with Senator McCain on this. I think he is wrong. We cannot afford to make a big mistake bigger.”

Vilsack also sent a letter to that effect to McCain.

And New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat who is considering a presidential run, has weighed in as well. In a speech in New Hampshire last month, he said McCain’s plan would only provoke sectarian violence.

“There is no military solution. There’s got to be a political solution,” Richardson said.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press