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Liberals Work to Change McCain's Image

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Liberals Work to Change McCain's Image
by: Joe Garofoli, The San Francisco Chronicle

A small knot of counterdemonstrators will greet Sen. John 
McCain when he arrives in Stockton today for a day of 
Northern California campaigning and fundraising. But the 
real anti-McCain action is happening in the media, where 
labor and liberal activists are starting to get the 
national press to do what the still-feuding Democratic 
candidates can't: Focus on the Republican nominee. 

On Thursday, the liberal group MoveOn.org will air 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 

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. Liberal activists see it as a hopeful sign 
that the national press may end its comfy clinch with 
McCain. "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 


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Outside Groups

Outside groups like MoveOn, the AFL-CIO and the Sierra 
Club - though unaffiliated with the presidential campaigns 
- are nonetheless doing the Democrats' dirty work, as the 
national media haven't been good multi-taskers when it 
comes to covering both the Democrats and McCain since he 
became the presumed GOP nominee. 

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 

The AFL-CIO, which will sponsor about 50 of today's anti-
McCain demonstrators, 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. 

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Tough Sell

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 AFL-CIO has not endorsed a candidate. Thirteen of 
its member unions have endorsed Clinton, nine have chosen 
Obama and 32 remain undecided, said spokesman Steve Smith.)

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. 

It's hard to be a maverick when, like McCain, you've voted 
with your Republican colleagues 88 percent of the time 
during the current Congress. After McCain discussed his 
climate-change proposals this month, Sierra Club Executive 
Director Carl Pope wrote on his blog, "What's really going 
on here is that McCain is once again trying to talk the 
talk without walking the walk." Pope pointed out that 
McCain's lifetime League of Conservation Voters rating 
is 24 percent. 

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 


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Shorthand Persists

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. 

McCain is also a TV guest booker's dream: Glib, spontaneous 
and readily available. He's appeared 13 times on Comedy 
Central's "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," far more than 
other politicians. Between 1997 and 2004, McCain appeared 
on the Sunday morning talk shows 124 times; the next most-
popular guest was Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., with 80 guest 
spots over that span. 

McCain hinted that the Obama campaign could learn a few 
things from the Arizona senator's media relations playbook. 
After McCain won the Potomac primaries this year, he 
criticized Obama for not exposing himself "to questions 
from the press and challenges from voters who ask more 
from their candidates than an empty promise of 'Trust 
me, I know better.' " 

But Schecter says there is a downside to being so 

"Now, there's a video paper trail to everything he says," 
and that can be easily passed around online, Schecter said. 
"That wasn't around 10 years ago." 

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