Dem-led efforts to define McCain (perhaps) picking up

Democrats contend that McCain's story and political identity remain a question mark for voters; Dean went as far as saying this week that Mitt Romney would have been a stronger candidate than McCain will be.

Whether that proves not or true, there is little doubt that Democrats have an opportunity right now to exploit McCain's relative absence from the spotlight as he tries to build a campaign organization and raise money. And that there is ample material to use is demonstrated by the wealth of stories out there in recent weeks exploring McCain's true convictions. Time published a story this week wondering whether the Arizona Senator "flip-flopped on torture" because of McCain's opposition to a Democratic proposal to limit interrogation techniques to those in the CIA's field manual -- a bill opposed by President Bush.

The New York Times, meanwhile, explored the growing influence of neo-conservatives on McCain's foreign policy philosophy; the piece quotes a number of so-called "pragmatists" who worry that McCain is growing away from their positions. Particularly striking is this passage characterizing the manner in which pragmatists within the Republican/McCain world are characterizing their presumptive nominee:

One of the chief concerns of the pragmatists is that Mr. McCain is susceptible to influence from the neoconservatives because he is not as fully formed on foreign policy as his campaign advisers say he is, and that while he speaks authoritatively, he operates too much off the cuff and has not done the deeper homework required of a presidential candidate.

Both the Time and New York Times story are worrisome for the Arizona Senator, as they hit him on topics on which Democrats believe he is the most vulnerable. And I am not even mentioning stories circulating about McCain's temper, such as this excerpt from a recent book alleging that the Senator had a fist fight with a congressman. As I explained in late March, Democrats are committed to undermining McCain's maverick image first by convincing voters that McCain is no centrist and a conservative in Bush's mold and second by arguing that what is perceived as moderation is in fact opportunistic politicking. By hitting on comments like "100 years" and "Bomb Iran," Democrats want to portray McCain as a dangerous war-mongerer who would deepen the country's involvement in the Middle East.

For all these stories to truly penetrate the public consciousness and hurt McCain in any meaningful way, however, Democrats have to be willing to hit him over the head with them -- and for now they have not done so at all. In fact, I mentioned last week that planned efforts by third-party groups had failed to recruit the necessary funds to launch ads against McCain, leaving him unchallenged more than two months after he emerged as his party's presumptive nominee and in a period in which the Republican was particularly vulnerable.

But efforts picked up this week (and, with it, Democratic hopes) with a group called Progressive Media USA launching an ambitious $40 million plan to introduce McCain to voters; meetings with wealthy Democratic donors (including George Soros) are said to have secured donation pledges and ads are already being worked on by consulting groups. We will no doubt know in the coming weeks whether these promises take hold and whether the third-party effort to go after McCain will get anywhere.

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