There is a growing effort on behalf of McCain surrogates here in Minneapolis to paint the Arizona Republican as far less hawkish on foreign policy than his image and proposals suggest.
In a conference sponsored by the Center for U.S. Global Engagement on Wednesday, advisers to the presumptive nominee spoke openly about the politics of trying to avoid the war-hungry caricature that has come to define the Senator.
"The nature of politics is they are going to try to accentuate things and we are going to try and make sure the American people look at certain things. And the candidates themselves want to have a well rounded picture. That is the nature of good horse playing politics. That's the nature of the game," said Ambassador Richard Williamson, a former Reagan official and envoy to Sudan. "I do not think John McCain is too hawkish. John McCain is willing to say that diplomacy without force is going to be effective. You are going to need it."
The remark reflects a semi-obvious reality that while the war in Iraq and a reliance on hard versus soft power tend to hold great sway within conservative circles, they are not necessarily wining arguments in a general election format. In a wonky, detailed forum on "what would a McCain presidency do," participants insisted McCain was not (contrary to the campaign perception) completely dismissive of diplomacy, and, more importantly, was not blind to the personal costs of war.
"He has, what I would say from my own conversations with him, a veteran's distaste for military conflict because hey, he's been through it, seen friends die and seen five and a half years as a POW as we know," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a surprise guest at the affair.
The Lieberman line has been used by McCain himself on the campaign trail. But the other arguments made by the speakers -- that McCain would reform U.S. AID, promote intelligence gathering efforts, and promote "decent education systems" in the Islamic world -- likely will not become focal points of the stump speech. The neo-conservative base still, it seems, holds enough sway to prevent it. And McCain has invested too much time and effort in bashing Barack Obama as the one distracted by the vague details of international affairs.
And yet, Williamson insists that the Senator has laid out a foreign policy vision that is much more balanced than what he is given credit for.
"It is understandable that the headline will go to the most muscular language," he said. "But if you read the speech that John McCain gave in at the Los Angeles world affairs council laying out his vision, it wasn't only the military option."