By David Morgan
WASHINGTON, June 25 (Reuters) - Republican candidate John McCain could be vulnerable on foreign policy and national security — his major campaign assets up to now — if Barack Obama can paint him as a symbol of contradiction and hardline ideology, experts say.
McCain — a former Navy pilot and Vietnam prisoner of war with 25 years in Congress to Obama’s three — has made his experience a centerpiece of his campaign for the November presidential election while accusing Obama of being weak and untested.
Democrats led by Obama himself have tried to portray McCain as no different from President George W. Bush, whose popularity has plummeted along with that of a 5-year-old Iraq war for which many Americans blame neoconservatives in his administration.
"This is an opportunity for us to take the fight to the Republicans and not just be reactive on foreign policy and national security, but be aggressive," said Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is viewed as a possible Obama running mate.
McCain has been leading Obama on foreign policy in opinion polls. Fifty-one percent of registered voters see the Arizona senator’s positions as "about right," vs. 43 percent for Obama, according to data collected May 21-25 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
Another 43 percent of voters said Obama was "not tough enough" in the foreign relations sphere, while three percent called him "too tough." By contrast, 16 percent said McCain was not tough enough and 22 percent said he was too tough. The data has a 3.5 percent margin of error.
But Ted Galen Carpenter of the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank who opposed the Iraq war, said McCain’s candidacy could be seriously damaged if Democrats mount a sustained attack aimed specifically at the Republican’s long-standing ties to the neoconservatives known as neocons.
VERY, VERY DANGEROUS
Carpenter believes that the more realist advisers such as Henry Kissinger on the McCain campaign are largely window-dressing to protect him from Democratic charges that he is really a neoconservative.
"John McCain is almost a wholly owned subsidiary of the neoconservative movement when it comes to foreign policy," Carpenter said.
"The Democrats have to go on the offensive and stay on the offensive. The message has to be: John McCain and his foreign policy team are very, very dangerous for America," he added. "A worried American electorate on that score might very well shy away from McCain."
Not that the McCain people would be surprised by an Obama campaign strategy that painted McCain as a neoconservative.
"If I were Obama’s people I would just say: ‘Neocon, neocon, neocon.’ That would be a fun thing to do," said a McCain adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the campaign.
"But McCain knows his own mind, and I wouldn’t call him uniformly one thing or another."
A "neocon" is more inclined than other conservatives to support vigorous government advocacy of morality and interventionist foreign policy. Neoconservatives such as former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz were key architects of the Iraq war and Bush’s doctrine of military pre-emption.
Analysts say McCain could also be vulnerable to contradictory statements that suggest rivalry between neoconservatives who influenced Bush on Iraq and other foreign policy issues and another foreign policy camp of so-called realists such as Henry Kissinger.
They cite for instance McCain’s call for Russia to be excluded from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations as a neoconservative position that could inhibit his more moderate call for arms reduction talks with Moscow.
Neoconservative idealism also appears to be behind his idea that world affairs could be addressed through a League of Democracies, analysts say, despite the U.S. need to work with autocratic countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia on vital issues including oil, Middle East peace and terrorism.
"You’ve got a realist John McCain trying to coexist peacefully with a neocon John McCain," said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank.
"There’s some significant jockeying by leaders in both camps for McCain’s ear and to make their view one which has primacy," he said.
"I HATE WAR"
Derek Chollet, of the Center for a New American Security, said inconsistency is a sign of turmoil among Republican foreign policy experts who have been widely discredited in the minds of voters after seven years of the Bush administration. Chollet was an adviser to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, a Democrat who ran for president.
Democrats say the Republican candidate who staunchly supports the Iraq war and once jokingly sang "bomb Iran" to the tune of the 1960s Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann," already has to reassure voters that "I hate war" in a current campaign ad.
"McCain’s going to run hard on foreign policy and Obama’s not trying to change the subject. Democrats are better prepared and more confident on foreign policy issues than at any time since the end of the Cold War," he said.
The McCain adviser denied any serious policy differences inside the campaign and says some of the candidate’s more moderate remarks, including his embrace of multilateralism, were advocated also by neocons.
"The speech-writing has been within a pretty tight circle and everybody talks to everybody else. There have not been big wars over these speeches," said the adviser.
He also dismissed McCain’s comment last October on Russia and the G-8 as "a holdover from an earlier period," adding: "It doesn’t reflect where he is right now."
(Editing by David Wiessler)