JOHN McCAIN, FLYING UNDER THE RADAR

Posted: April 08, 2008

SOUTH PHILLY can be a dangerous place for politicians.

John Kerry's campaign sunk like a greasy cheesesteak when he ordered his with Swiss cheese.

Watching his waistline - or his poll numbers - Barack Obama played it safe last week by going to Claudio's and DiBruno's, and Hillary compared herself to Rocky, forgetting that he lost. I'll bet neither candidate has a cheesesteak at Geno's, with its anti-immigrant connotations.

Now John McCain has seemingly fallen into a South Philly political pothole.

Promising to try to woo black voters, McCain told radio interviewer Tavis Smiley, "I know that I'm not going to get a majority of the African-American vote. But I'm going to campaign all over this country. I'm going to go to South Philadelphia, I'm going to go to the Black Belt in Alabama . . ."

If McCain wants to win over black voters, first he'd better know where to find them.

South Philly has changed from a mostly Italian-heritage enclave to one that includes growing numbers of Asians and Hispanics. According to the latest census, while Philadelphia is a majority-minority city, African-Americans are less than a third of the population in South Philadelphia.

The press had a field day with John Kerry's swiss cheese moment - front-page news in our town.

But McCain's gaffes, and his serious policy differences with most Americans, attract much less press and public attention. They don't seem to make a dent in McCain's self-portrait as the most seasoned and experienced candidate for the presidency.

He asks us to trust him to win the war in Iraq. Yet at a recent news conference there, he didn't know which side was Sunni, which Shiite, in the fighting in Basra. At Joe Lieberman's prompting, he corrected himself - then issued a statement that he had been right in the first place.

Now, lots of people are confused about who's who in this war. But you would expect the guy who says he can win it to know who the enemy is.

He's been wrong about the war from the beginning, and has promised to carry Bush's policies into his own administration.

He may be even more of a hawk. Right-wing pundit Pat Buchanan has said, "McCain will make Cheney look like Gandhi." That's scary talk, but hardly noticed.

We have had a national conversation about Barack Obama's relationship with his former pastor, the Rev. Wright. But few people are even aware that McCain has welcomed support from right-wing ministers like Rev. John Hagee, who has called Catholicism a "false cult" and "the anti-Christ." Why hasn't this caused a furor like the Obama endured over Rev. Wright?

The economy has replaced the war in Iraq and terrorism as the number one concern of voters.

McCain has admitted he "doesn't really understand economics." Neither do most people, but we expect more, and need more, from a president.

McCain was just endorsed by former Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan, whom many economists blame for leaving the economy in a shambles. Even now, Greenspan says recession is only a possibility. Try telling that to the blue-collar voters who plan to vote for McCain. Hard times have already hit most Americans - we face higher prices, tighter credit, a falling dollar, and too many lost jobs, foreclosures, and bankruptcies.

Is McCain a moderate, as many believe? He has been called the worst senator in Congress for children by the Children's Defense Fund, rates a zero for his environmental voting record from the League of Conservation voters, and thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned.

While the public and press are fascinated by the fratricide of the Democrats, John McCain is getting a free ride to the White House. We all know he is a war hero. It's time we learn about the other stuff. *

Deborah Leavy is a public policy consultant who contributes regularly to the Daily News. E-mail her at deborah.opinion@gmail.com.

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