What is clear is that McCain beats both Democratic presidential rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton on values, in part because of his military background. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 54 percent of registered voters said McCain "has background/set of values I identify with," compared with 46 percent for Ms. Clinton and 45 percent for Mr. Obama. If McCain is going to be elected president, it will be because of values, and in spite of the unpopular Iraq war he supports and a struggling economy, analysts say.
The fact that McCain has far more life experience than Obama, the likely Democratic nominee and 25 years McCain's junior, could also work to his benefit. But just as important will be how McCain touts his experience and how he explains his quirky Senate record.
To some McCain observers, the senator's military career goes a long way toward explaining how he approaches policy.
"When you come from a military background, I think you're less ideological, less partisan," says Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster based in Tucson, Ariz. "It's a career that's very much task-oriented, getting a vital job done."
McCain himself, in a Monitor interview last fall, touted the apolitical traditions of the military. "I don't think my father ever voted," he said. "Generally speaking, most military officers try to keep a very big separation between their military duties and the political side."
Indeed, the last career military man to serve as president, five-star general and war hero Dwight Eisenhower, had no political affiliation during his long service. He was recruited by both major parties to run for president in 1948, but declined. In 1952, a Republican "Draft Eisenhower" movement succeeded.