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McCain crafted campaign style watching Bob Dole woes

The Associated Press

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON – It was late in 1996, and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole longed for a friendly face as he flew around the country with a planeload of bickering advisers and angry reporters. So he summoned his pal from Arizona.

But to Sen. John McCain, riding along on Dole’s ”Leader’s Ship” was more than a favor for a friend; it was a flying seminar on how – and how not – to run his own White House bid four years later.

”Dole’s plane is where I really firmed up the plans,” McCain recalled recently. ”I learned a lot about how you do something like this. A lot.”

No lesson, however, could have prepared him for Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s unprecedented $67 million White House bid. McCain has stumbled against the competition on issues ranging from gays to taxes and his Commerce Committee chairmanship.

While trailing Bush elsewhere in the country, McCain has tied or surpassed the GOP presidential front-runner in New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary Feb. 1. And that status as a serious challenger, McCain says, paints a big target on his back.

”When you see a campaign get traction, it gets very tough,” he said earlier this month. ”I have every reason to think it’s gonna get tougher.”

One of the key lessons he learned from Dole is that if reporters want access to the candidate, give them more than they can use.

Unlike Dole, whose aides tried to stem the flow of gaffes by keeping him at a distance, thus angering reporters, McCain sits at the center of his traveling press corps between campaign bus stops.

”Kill ‘em with access,” the Arizona senator says with a wink.

But his blunt style and a bawdy sense of humor make such freewheeling risky, as McCain has learned. He was criticized for saying this week that he can tell ”by behavior and by attitudes” whether a person is homosexual.

He later promised to stick to a more disciplined answer. ”I intended to say, ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell.’ That’s how I’ll answer it from now on,” he said.

McCain has caused some of his own problems by participating in the same campaign finance system he has condemned during his crusade to end big money’s influence over government.

As Senate Commerce Committee chairman, McCain has written letters to federal agencies on behalf of major contributors, prompting criticism that their money has bought them more access, just like the contributors of other senators.

And he also has come under fire for accepting favors, ranging from private jet travel to fund-raisers, from companies overseen by the Commerce Committee.

McCain says he has only prodded federal agencies to act, not on which decision to make. ”We’re all tainted by the process,” he says repeatedly.

McCain says he cannot avoid the appearance of conflict arising from his committee chairmanship because the panel regulates more than 80 percent of the nation’s companies. To stay in business as a politician, he says, he has to play within the system until he succeeds in changing it.

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