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Opinion: McCain: Anti-Bush candidate

WASHINGTON -- Credit John McCain with one thing: When you're 70 years old, running for president a second time and have been stumping the country for many months, it's difficult to spring any surprises in your formal announcement speech.

WASHINGTON -- Credit John McCain with one thing: When you're 70 years old, running for president a second time and have been stumping the country for many months, it's difficult to spring any surprises in your formal announcement speech.

The Arizona senator came up with one: He is running as the anti-Bush.

After years of cozying up to the man in the White House, and emerging (for better or worse) as the most eloquent defender of Bush's present strategy in Iraq, McCain this week reverted suddenly and dramatically to his 1999-2000 role as the leading Republican critic of politics as usual.

When he said, in summing up his indictment of present-day Washington, that he wants to change "a bloated, irresponsible and incompetent government," no one could have doubted whose record he meant.

It is a big gamble on McCain's part, but a necessary one. The closer his ties to Bush have become, the more his standing in the polls has slumped.

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While Bush remains highly popular among Republican voters, GOP consultant Steve Lombardo pointed out that "in no issue area does the (overall) public approve of the president's performance. This is likely to be a 'change' election," in which the majority of voters seek a new direction, whoever becomes the next president.

McCain's campaign aides insist that he has never changed. But this year's McCain gives no emphasis to the campaign finance reforms that were central to his 2000 message, knowing that they are not popular with Republican power brokers. And his announcement speech was notably silent on the subject of immigration reform, another issue on which he has found himself at odds with many of his fellow Republicans.

Eight years ago, his favorite target was retiring President Bill Clinton, whose personal recklessness had triggered impeachment. "Something has gone terribly wrong when parents no longer want their children to grow up to be president," McCain said then. "That shames me ... and I want to do something about it."

Now, it is the manifest shortcomings of the Bush administration that McCain says he would not tolerate as president. In clear references to the faltering Bush performance on homeland security, Hurricane Katrina relief and Walter Reed hospital treatment of wounded veterans, McCain said: "That's not good enough for America. And when I'm president, it won't be good enough for me."

He used the same words to characterize the failings of the president and Congress on balancing the budget, financing Social Security and Medicare, reforming the tax code, securing energy independence and helping workers who lose their jobs to foreign competition.

And McCain did not exempt Iraq policy from his critique. Instead of underlining his support for attacking Saddam Hussein and his endorsement of Bush's decision to add more troops this year, McCain emphasized the lessons from Iraq.

"We all know the war in Iraq has not gone well," he said. "We have made mistakes and we have paid grievously for them. We have changed the strategy that failed us, and we have begun to make a little progress. But in the many mistakes we have made in this war, a few lessons have become clear."

That statement by itself will not appease those who think McCain has been wrong in supporting the war and who deplored his quick embrace of Bush after their bitter struggle for the 2000 nomination. The picture of McCain urging Bush's election at the Republican National Convention and at dozens of other rallies will not be easily erased.

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But for John McCain, there must be at least some relief now in being able to speak his own mind -- whatever the consequences. Candor, even belatedly, becomes him.

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