"I'm as old as dirt, and I have more scars than Frankenstein." Senator John McCain trots out this self-deprecating assessment with relative frequency on the campaign trail, often eliciting chuckles from his audience. It's a politically deft maneuver; he makes light of his age, as Reagan famously did, while reminding voters of the great physical sacrifice he endured for our nation. It also helps to illustrate his surprising appeal to younger voters.
Despite being far and away the oldest presidential candidate in the 2008 race at 71, McCain wields a fair amount of credibility with young Americans. He has attracted the Me-generation's attention by showing a willingness to meet them on their turf in order to earn their respect. McCain will never be the youthful beacon of "hope" and "change" that Barack Obama has fashioned himself to be, but he may give the Democrats a run for their money with the youth vote.
In August, with his campaign sputtering, McCain made his tenth appearance on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, a college dorm television staple and notorious snake pit for conservatives. McCain has repeatedly stepped into the belly of the beast over the years and often emerges relatively unscathed. On more than one occasion, he's appeared to leave the hostile studio audience befuddled—"Why are we applauding this man? He just effectively defended the illegal, immoral war in Iraq!"
Perhaps McCain's most impressive interaction with younger voters was his December 3rd appearance in an MTV/Myspace presidential dialogue. McCain fielded a laundry list of live questions from students at Southern New Hampshire University, in addition to real-time queries sent via instant message and online videos. During his answers, the senior Senator from Arizona made no apologies for his pro-life voting record, and vigorously defended the war in Iraq.
"I can tell you that this new strategy is succeeding," he said in response to a question about the Iraq war. "They're not fighting over there for oil, they aren't fighting for empire, and they aren't fighting illegally. They're fighting because they want America to be safe." Many of the students applauded.
Over the course of the evening, members of the audience were asked to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the candidate's positions. McCain garnered a greater positive shift in the audience's live poll than his MTV forum predecessors: Barack Obama and John Edwards. By the end of the night, 37 percent of the students said they "strongly agreed" with McCain and 24 percent "somewhat agreed." McCain jokingly asked if he could "do another hour," drawing laughter and applause. He is the only GOP candidate who chose to appear on the MTV townhall series.
Neither of these pieces of anecdotal evidence form a sufficient basis to select our next Commander-In-Chief. If a president could be selected through a popularity contest of twenty-somethings, there's little doubt who would win (Hint: he's a Senator from Illinois with about a billion facebook friends). But McCain's genuine willingness—and effectiveness—in courting the youth vote should not be summarily dismissed as irrelevant.
Some will argue that McCain appears on Jon Stewart's show and MTV to cozy up to the liberal media establishment that seems to adore him. They'll point out that McCain earned some of his accolades from the college crowd by affirming their pre-existing opinions on issues like global warming. This is certainly part of the story. It's no secret that McCain often infuriates conservatives by bucking the party line on a host of issues, including immigration and campaign finance reform. Yet President Bush lobbied hard for McCain's failed amnesty bill and signed McCain/Feingold. In retrospect, were these political sins so grievous that conservatives should have sat home in and let John Kerry become president?
John McCain is not a perfect candidate for conservatives. Not even close. Much of the flack he gets from conservatism's brightest minds—from Rush Limbaugh to Laura Ingraham to Rich Lowry to Hugh Hewitt—is well deserved. Ultimately, though, Republicans face an uphill battle in 2008 and our candidate will need to appeal to a wide swath of voters who may not immediately identify with the somewhat tattered Republican brand. Republicans are seeking a candidate who has enough broad-based support to prevent a Hillary or Obama presidency, but who still defends conservative principles, say, 82 percent of the time, according to the American Conservative Union.
McCain, with his proven attractiveness toward independents, swing voters, and his fair share of conservatives, has made a solid case that he's the candidate to do it. Rock on, Senator.
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