LAS VEGAS — The race is on to define John McCain.
The likely Republican nominee launched his first television ad of the general election campaign Friday, casting himself as a ready-to-lead wartime president in advance of a biographical tour to pivotal places in his life. Son of a military man, midshipman, Navy pilot, Vietnam POW, member of Congress for nearly three decades — this is the resume of the 71-year-old McCain.
"In some ways, I'm well-known to the American people. In other ways, I'm not well-known," McCain told The Associated Press on Friday.
The Democratic Party — still lacking a nominee — and its supporters offer a starkly different portrait. In their view, McCain is a Washington insider, backer of an unpopular war in Iraq, hair-trigger quick on Iran and indifferent on the economic woes of average Americans. They cast McCain as four more years of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
"All he wants to do is continue on the George Bush failed policies of the past," says Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. His rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, talks about "a Bush/McCain Iraq policy" and argues that "we've had enough of a president who didn't know enough about economics."
Seven months before Election Day, the two parties are furiously trying to establish a lasting image of McCain for voters. Perceptions can take hold, whether it's the one the Bush campaign crafted in 2004 of a strong, steady leader or the one critics tagged to Democratic nominee John Kerry — flip-flopper.
Aside from what the Democratic Party does to challenge McCain, a loose coalition of liberal and labor organizations expects to spend about $150 million this fall to push its causes and help Democrats win the White House and strengthen their grip on Congress.
"You can't discount some of the effects" of these efforts, McCain said.
Recent polls indicate that while McCain would run a competitive race against either Obama or Clinton, the Republican has work to do to boost voters' positive impressions of him. Some surveys also indicate that his identity isn't universally tied to Bush among pivotal independents.
A Pew Research Center survey released Thursday found that 45 percent of people viewed McCain favorably, a smaller slice than Obama and Clinton. Still, just over half of independents says McCain would take the country in a different direction than Bush — important given that two-thirds of independents disapprove of the president's job performance.
While McCain is familiar to GOP faithful, a recent AP-Yahoo News poll found that he was less known than Obama and Clinton among voters at large. When asked to describe McCain, most mentioned his senior citizen status and his military service. He also was widely seen as experienced, strong, honest and decisive.
Broadly, McCain argues he's someone who will keep the country safe and prosperous by using his knowledge and judgment — culled from his lifetime of service in the Navy and the Senate. The four-term senator argues that he will challenge the Washington status quo, deal with climate change and tell it straight.
His effort to start that story line began Friday, with the initial, albeit for now limited, ad campaign that calls him "the American president Americans have been waiting for." It coincides with a "Service to America" tour next week in which McCain will give a series of speeches in towns that shaped his life.
"What McCain has to do — and what he's got time to do now — is de-link himself from the president and define himself as a different Republican who can appeal to independents and swing voters," said Steven Lombardo, a GOP pollster in Washington.
Some say that won't be difficult.
"John McCain has an image of being anti-Bush from the 2000 election. He's not George Bush," and Democrats won't succeed in painting him as a clone, said Greg Strimple, a Republican strategist in New York.
Earlier this week, McCain embraced a more collaborative foreign policy approach with democratic allies, drawing a contrast with Bush's go-it-alone style of the last eight years. Upcoming is a speech on combating climate change; McCain breaks from Bush on the issue that attracts voters from across the political spectrum .
Democrats acknowledge that McCain, who is struggling to raise money, has a significant opportunity to craft his own image while better-funded Democrats are preoccupied with the protracted Obama-Clinton fight.
Several Democrats recalled the 1996 presidential race when President Clinton used his re-election money to paint Republican Bob Dole as a past-era conservative outside of the mainstream.
"Democrats had a chance with their superior financial advantage to have overwhelmed McCain — especially in the key states — in the period between the spring and conventions as they did with Dole in '96. But that is likely not to be the case now," said Chris Lehane, a political consultant in California and former aide to President Clinton.
Others argue there's plenty of time.
Democrats at all levels — from the party to labor to Clinton and Obama — are girding for this character-creating fight. Democrats have argued McCain flip-flopped on Bush's tax cuts, first opposing them, then embracing them. They repeatedly seize on McCain's remarks that some level of the U.S. military presence in Iraq could last 100 years and economics is not his strongest suit.
Said Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist, "Democrats have to basically say the John McCain you thought you knew isn't the John McCain that's running for president this year."