WASHINGTON — How on earth is the Republican Party going to sell John McCain? Once the Democrats stop doing the job, I mean.

Image consultants could try to portray McCain as a latter-day Dwight Eisenhower. I’ve actually heard Republicans try to make the comparison, but it doesn’t work without rounding up and destroying all the history books. McCain served his country courageously, getting shot down over Vietnam and spending years as a prisoner of war. All that Ike did was, um, save the world. I’m seeing a slight imbalance here.

Republicans certainly can’t sell McCain to the American public as a sure-handed pilot to steer the economy through dangerous straits. Maybe voters will be generous enough to let him withdraw his confession that he doesn’t really understand economics that well. But I don’t see how most Americans will believe that McCain’s basic economic philosophy — keep cutting taxes for the well-to-do and restrain discretionary government spending — will make their lives any better.

McCain can hardly be painted as a foreign policy sage. His biggest handicap in this regard, of course, is the war in Iraq — an albatross that McCain actually volunteered to wear.

The presumptive Republican nominee envisions a U.S. military presence in Iraq for decades to come — which is not what most Americans want. Like George W. Bush, he intends for U.S. troops to fight in Iraq until “we win,” without specifying who the enemy might be or what victory might look like. Does his refusal to “lose” — he doesn’t define that, either — stem from the trauma of his Vietnam experience? I think it might, but in the end all that really matters is his plan to wade deeper into an obvious quagmire.

McCain’s views on Iran are even more troubling. What ought to worry many voters is that he has no sensible plan to achieve his non-negotiable goal, which is an Iran without nuclear weapons. He doesn’t speak of any sort of negotiated solution. Instead, he describes something similar to the policy that the United States has pursued toward Cuba for nearly five decades — apply sanctions and deprive the population until some sort of upheaval dislodges what is basically an illegitimate government.

Does anyone seriously think that applying tougher sanctions will work any better in Tehran than in Havana? Eventually, McCain would have to decide whether to use U.S. military power — already drained by fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and slogging in circles through the morass of Iraq — to do what vigorous diplomacy and engagement might have accomplished.

Because of McCain’s age, Republican strategists might be tempted to present him as an avuncular, Reaganesque figure, a mature adult whose strength is tempered by great experience. But that requires displaying something like Reagan’s unflappability, and would only work until the first time McCain flew off the handle.

As The Washington Post reported Sunday, McCain’s temper is legendary. Among many reported eruptions of rage, he once had what a witness described as a “shouting and shoving” match with fellow senator Charles Grassley. It’s possible, I suppose, to sugarcoat McCain’s explosions as a reflection of the passion he brings to public service. Much harder to explain away, however, are the times he reportedly sought revenge on low-level Capitol Hill staffers for daring to stand their ground when he tried to run over them. That’s the behavior of a bully, not of a passionate public servant.

All in all, not the easiest candidate to sell.

So far, the Democrats have been McCain’s most effective marketing gurus. Last month, Hillary Clinton was telling voters in Ohio and Texas that McCain was more qualified to deal with 3 a.m. foreign policy crises than Barack Obama. This weekend, Obama told voters in Pennsylvania that McCain would be an improvement over Bush.

Both Democrats, in making the “electability” argument, have painted McCain as an awesomely formidable candidate. The reality is, though, that he’s a flawed candidate whose views on the major issues confronting the nation differ from those of most Americans — and whose talents and temperament are not well suited to facing those challenges.

McCain is no pushover, mind you, but he’s eminently beatable. The hypothetical matchup polls mean very little at this point; most of the fundamentals still favor the Democratic candidate in the fall. Clinton and Obama just have to avoid destroying each other — and they have to remember, from time to time, whom they’re really running against.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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