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Military culture, pragmatism shape McCain

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That brush with political death, as much as his POW experience, has shaped his career in Washington. In addition to being a leading voice on national security issues, especially since 9/11, he became a champion of campaign-finance reform, to the chagrin of conservatives. Now, as he takes on the mantle of presumptive Republican presidential nominee, the McCain brand – a "straight talker" and sometime maverick, willing at times to buck GOP orthodoxy to do what he thinks is right – is under scrutiny like never before.

The McCain brand

Before McCain ever had a notion of going into politics, he was a military man. Born on a military base in Panama, the son and grandson of Navy admirals, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, and a 23-year veteran of Navy service, McCain is steeped in military culture.

Over and over, his campaign ads come back to the values – courage, integrity, patriotism – that political analysts say have made him competitive in a presidential race that, by most indications, should heavily favor the Democrat.

More than anything, the grainy footage of Lieutenant Commander McCain in prison in Hanoi, lying in bed while answering an interrogator's questions, has become the iconic image of his campaign – an unassailable reminder that, short of dying, McCain made the ultimate sacrifice for his country. But in and of itself, McCain's military experience may have limited appeal to voters. After all, in recent presidential cycles, even after 9/11, decorated military veterans have lost to candidates with less distinguished service, or no military service at all – including McCain's loss of the Republican nomination in 2000 to George W. Bush.

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