McCain: Aiming to Avoid the Dole-drums

John McCain has long known what it's like for a teleprompter-challenged Republican senator to go up against a charismatic, made-for-TV Democrat. In 1996, McCain was Bob Dole's right-hand man. He served as one of the Kansas senator's closest traveling companions and top surrogates in the battle to unseat Bill Clinton. It was a race that began as Dole's to lose—Clinton was caught up in the Whitewater scandal. But lose he did. McCain watched as the Democrats successfully transformed the image of the former Senate majority leader, once known for his consensus-building and dry wit, into an old, humorless Washington insider who couldn't deliver real change.

Now McCain finds himself returning to some old arguments. "Others may offer you sound bites and showmanship," McCain said at the GOP convention in '96. "But Bob Dole offers you leadership—leadership evident in the stature of a man who risked his life for love of country and considers service to America his honor." Recently, McCain has stepped up his efforts to depict Barack Obama as a candidate who is all talk, no action. Obama, McCain has said, offers "an eloquent but empty call for change." Two weeks ago in New Orleans, McCain declared: "He hasn't been willing to make the tough calls to challenge his party. I have." In response, Obama has called McCain a "creature of Washington" who is too entrenched to offer real change—a line Clinton frequently used against Dole 12 years ago.

McCain is not eager to draw comparisons with the Dole campaign. When asked about it recently, he cited only the massive fund-raising disparity that Dole suffered against Clinton. "The only thing I can say is … unfortunately Bob Dole was out of money after winning the primary, and that hurt him in his ability to define himself with the American people, and we are not going to let that happen," McCain told NEWSWEEK. "[But] that was 1996, and we are now in 2008, so the world is very different."

McCain is right, but not always in ways he might like. In 1996, although Clinton appeared weakened by Whitewater and the GOP takeover of Congress, the economy was rebounding, and the world was largely at peace. Al Qaeda was not yet a household name. "Politically, the setups are dramatically different," says Bill Lacy, a former Dole strategist who most recently managed Fred Thompson's ill-fated campaign. "Now you've got an environment that is very anti-Republican and a Democratic Party that is desperate to win."

Some similarities between McCain and Dole are obvious: McCain is 71, 25 years older than Obama; Dole was 73 in 1996, 23 years older than Clinton. Both are decorated war heroes who came home with permanent physical injuries that affected their movement. McCain, who was tortured during his five years as a POW in Vietnam, can't raise his arms above his shoulders; Dole's right arm was paralyzed after he was hit by German gunfire while fighting in World War II, leaving him unable to shake hands in the usual fashion.

Both McCain and Dole have also suffered from unpopular company—President Bush's low esteem hurts McCain, and Newt Gingrich was a drag on Dole in 1996. "The Clintonistas wrapped Gingrich around Dole's neck in the same way that the entire Democratic establishment is singing the tune these days of McCain running for George W. Bush's third term," says GOP strategist Scott Reed, who managed Dole's '96 campaign.

But some of their shared qualities are lesser known, including a record of challenging their own party when necessary. In late 1995, McCain and Dole both supported Clinton's bid to send troops to Bosnia—a position that put them at odds with many other Republicans. For Dole, it was a particularly trying moment: his advisers didn't want him to side with Clinton—or even McCain, who at that point was backing another candidate in the GOP primary. McCain recalls that his respect for Dole only deepened as a result. "The example of Bob Dole reminded me of the duty that gives our nation its strength and honor," McCain wrote in his memoir "Worth the Fighting For."

It was during the Bosnia debate that Dole admitted on the Senate floor that he had worn a bracelet with McCain's name on it while the former POW was in captivity in Vietnam. Dole had never mentioned it to McCain, who writes that he was so stunned he began to cry. A few months later, Dole asked McCain to join him on the road, and he did, riding shotgun on the campaign even when it was clear Dole didn't have much chance of winning.

McCain quickly became a member of Dole's inner circle—though Dole, to the chagrin of his advisers, often liked to rely on his own counsel. They shared a similar sense of humor, a penchant for wry one-liners that sometimes didn't translate well on the stump. Dole, in fact, had been known as one of the funniest members of the Senate, but as McCain joined him on the trail, he noticed that Dole held back. By then Dole and his advisers were divided about whether it was a good idea, in the words of one former Dole strategist, to "let Dole be Dole."

In the meantime, Dole struggled. Frustrated at his own delivery, he refused for many months to use a teleprompter or even work with a speech coach. And he didn't like the idea of memorizing a speech that he could use again and again—Dole thought it intellectually dishonest. When he did take the advice of his aides, he came off as inauthentic.

In the summer of 1996, McCain pulled Dole aside and urged him to be himself. In particular, says one former Dole strategist who declined to be named while discussing private conversations, McCain suggested that Dole talk more about his military service. It was a touchy subject with Dole, who believed that bringing up his experience in the war would be viewed as bragging, and would tarnish his honor. For the most part, he didn't take McCain's advice.

It's a conversation that, ironically, McCain would have with his own aides several years later when he decided to run for president in 2000. Like Dole, McCain doesn't like to talk about his years of military service in personal terms, especially his time as a POW. "For him, after he came back, it was over, and he didn't want to dwell on it," says Mark Salter, McCain's longtime aide and book collaborator. But McCain did eventually talk about it in 2000, partly prompted by the release of his first memoir, "Faith of My Fathers."

In this election, McCain has talked about some of his difficult moments—on video that the campaign has distributed to voters and played at rallies before McCain arrives. But he still seems reluctant to address the subject in person. At a fund-raising reception last week in New York, a donor stood and asked McCain why he didn't talk about his personal sacrifice more. "I'm very reluctant to do so, as you know, because, look, I don't think I did anything that any other American wouldn't do," McCain said. "The great honor and privilege of my life was to serve in the company of heroes and to observe a thousand acts of courage and compassion and love."

There are many ways in which McCain and Dole are different. McCain is not a joyless campaigner, as Dole often was. Aides say he takes direction and is disciplined when it comes to staying on message. Dole, on the other hand, was visibly frustrated in the final weeks of his campaign, at one point blaming the media, whom he said had given Clinton an easy ride. "Where is the outrage?" he repeatedly bellowed at a rally in fall '96. "Where is the outrage?" Watching the events offstage, McCain, according to the Associated Press, "rolled his eyes." "I know it is not productive to beat up on the press," McCain said, a line he virtually repeated to NEWSWEEK last week when asked about his own press coverage.

Some missteps can't be avoided. In 1996, Dole's campaign was permanently damaged by the image of the then GOP nominee falling off a stage in Chico, Calif. It was a stumble that wasn't Dole's fault, but rather a sign of poor advance work. Reaching out to grasp a voter's hand, Dole leaned against an unsecured rail. The fall made it into a few articles, and then was replayed again and again on TV. Unfairly, it made Dole look feeble and undermined his case for experience—a reminder of why McCain should be careful about following in Dole's footsteps.