McCain, Giuliani Battle Swift Boats, Sagging Polls

The swift boats are aimed at Rudy.

The noisy outcries of national associations of firefighters and police officers are not just annoying distractions in the candidacy of the former mayor.

This is the man who is running as the Hero of 9/11.

This is Vietnam for Lt. John Kerry.

When you put something at the core of the campaign, it helps if it’s leak proof.

The problem with the opposition of emergency responders to Rudy is that their critique of him undercuts the very claim to heroic competence that is at the core of his campaign.

If the office was in the wrong place and the radios didn’t work, if firefighters lost their lives because they never got the order to evacuate, if the equipment was broken and everyone knew it but it never got fixed, then the guy in charge of that is not the guy you want running the country.

The anti-Dukakis ads used to ask: Do you really want him to do for the country what he’s done for Massachusetts?

The lesson of attacks like this is that if unanswered, they can kill you.

Of course, no one ignores them completely. Giuliani’s people have accused the critics of contractual sour grapes, and have trotted out individual firefighters and police officers who love Rudy. That is precisely what the Kerry people did when the Swift Boat group surfaced, offering up their own crewmates.

So for a few days, it was a battle of crewmates, and then the defenders went away and the attackers settled in and the rest is history, which John Kerry is still trying to make right.

Giuliani’s lead in the polls is based about an idea voters have about him, an idea that is part toughness and part competence. His candidacy requires conservatives to swallow hard on social issues, and avert their eyes from his personal ones. If you take away his heroism, and replace it with a portrait of a guy whose ego undermined his accomplishments and whose efforts cost lives instead of saved them, there’s nowhere left to look, and certainly no reason to swallow hard.

The challenge Giuliani faces is to define himself before his opponents do, with enough specificity to withstand the assault that is sure to come. He may be a national hero, but my guess is most people couldn’t tell you what exactly he did that made him the man of 9/11. Giuliani has to fill in the dots, before they get filled for him.

It is, of course, ridiculously early for this. But everything is ridiculously early this year, and with what will come as close as we have ever had to a national primary day on Feb. 5, March and April become the new August.

While Giuliani is riding high in the polls, and attracting the critics, John McCain is in the even less enviable position of sagging in the polls, and being asked to explain it. McCain has the Swift Boaters, literally some of the same ones, coming after him too, but on that front at least, he’s fortified by his standing as a former POW, which is pretty firm cement for the hero label.

But that’s the least of his problems right now. There’s a perception that he’s in trouble, and he’s unwittingly adding to it.

One of the most basic rules of politics is that candidates don’t talk about politics. The candidate talks about the message, about what his candidacy is about, what he’ll do for you, not his numbers in the last polls or how many organizers he has in Iowa. That’s the job of the campaign manager and the rest of the hacks. If you have to mention the polls, you do it as a sort of segue into what you stand for. You don’t talk about polls even when they’re good precisely so you won’t have to talk about them when they’re bad.

So it was something of a surprise to see John McCain playing campaign manager in defending his own sagging polls numbers:

“We continue to work, and continue to raise money, and establish a political base, not only across the nation but in those early primary states," McCain said this week at a press conference in Fresno that was supposed to be about the endorsement of the local mayor, adding "I notice there are several polls I am either tied or ahead in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and some of the early states.”

Is that a reason to be for him?

In fact, McCain is sagging because he couldn’t give the answer he should have to that question, which is that he has never been a politician who lives and dies by the polls, that he has always stood up for what he believes is right, and sometimes that’s popular and sometimes it’s a little less popular.

Right now, leading the battle to find common ground on the difficult issue of immigration, it’s a little less popular.

The John McCain who ran for president on the Straight Talk Express in 2000 wouldn’t have answered a question about poll numbers by talking about organizers, but by talking about what that campaign was about. That he can’t give the same answer this time around, that it clearly didn’t occur to him, is a symptom of what’s wrong with this latest effort. Having sought to win the support of the factions that cost him victory last time, McCain seems to have lost the essence of who he was. What’s left is a guy who sounds like nothing so much as a hack.

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Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was previously Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and was the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System,” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for

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