McCain Wants Respectful Fight with Clinton

John McCain is trying to simultaneously position himself as the GOP’s best hope to beat Hillary Clinton while avoiding a mud-slinging battle.

McCain Wants Respectful Fight with Clinton Photo Kevin Lamarque/Reuters Potential rivals, Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain, at a prayer breakfast in February.

In a speech here that his campaign described as the kind of pointed but respectful approach he will take for the rest of the campaign, Mr. McCain sought to tap into the anti-Clinton sentiment seen to be driving many Republican primary voters, particularly in New Hampshire. At the same time, he tried to do it in a markedly different way from his two main rivals, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, who have both harshly attacked Mrs. Clinton in making their own cases for electability.

The Republicans have taken aim at Mrs. Clinton early in the campaign, months before even the first votes are cast, assuming that her lead position in national polls makes her the likely Democratic nominee. Each is trying to show that he would be best able to slug it out in what primary voters assume will be a very rough campaign.

Mr. McCain has struggled to balance his stated desire for a respectful contest with his campaign’s recognition that he has a lot of ground to cover to persuade Republicans that he would stand the best chance against Mrs. Clinton. The speech reflected that tension, citing an array of policy differences but using impersonal language.

“If I’m your nominee and Senator Clinton is the nominee of the other party, the country will face as clear a choice as any in recent memory,” he told an overflow crowd at Franklin Pierce University. “She will be a formidable candidate. And while our differences are many and profound, I intend this to be a respectful debate. She and I disagree over America’s direction, and it is a serious disagreement. But I don’t doubt her ability to lead this country where she thinks it should go.”

That’s exactly the right spirit, although I’m dubious of the ability of the candidates to keep the debate on that high plane. But, surely, we can do without another year of “Beat the Bitch” as the campaign theme.

The low tone of our political discourse (by no means unprecedented, to be sure) not only tends to turn the citizenry off from the process, ensuring that only the most ardent political junkies turn out to vote, but also delegitimates the outcome. When the opponent is thought of, not as a loyal American who simply has a different vision for the country but rather as an evil person who wants the country defeated by terrorists, to see old people and children starve, hates minorities, or what have you, then losing is simply unacceptable.

Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.