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The Counter-intuitive Candidate

CARTAGENA, Colombia — In at least one way, Sen. John McCain’s two-day jaunt through Latin America encapsulates his unusual campaign strategy. Yesterday, he met with Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to discuss human rights, drug trafficking and free trade. McCain, an ardent supporter of the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, finds himself in opposition to a majority of Americans, according to a new CNN poll.

According to the CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll, 51 percent of Americans view foreign trade as a threat to the economy — the first time in a CNN poll that a majority of Americans report holding negative views on free trade.

That compares with only 35 percent of Americans who felt free trade posed a threat to the economy in 2000, and 48 percent who felt it was a threat in 2006.

Now, only four in 10 Americans say free trade presents an opportunity for economic growth, a sentiment that clearly makes the issue a challenge for McCain, especially in the crucial Rust Belt states most affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last decade.

The irony is that McCain has just come from two such Rust Belt states — Indiana and Ohio — both of which are shaping up into battlegrounds. McCain himself acknowledged the importance of Ohio during a Friday campaign visit to a GM plant in Youngstown, where free trade was a prominent issue for autoworkers.

"I think that Ohio is going to be a battleground state. I have to campaign hard here. I have to work hard here. I’m the underdog in this race. I’m behind. I have to catch up and get ahead, and I expect to do that about 48 hours before the general election. "

Sen. Barack Obama, who opposes the Colombian Free Trade Agreement, used McCain’s visit to Colombia as an opportunity to hammer the Arizona senator on the issue yesterday.

But free trade is not the only issue McCain has made central to his campaign strategy on which he is opposed by a majority of Americans. While he has been a frequent critic of the Bush administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq, he has been a steadfast supporter of the war from the beginning. Virtually all recent polls show solid majorities of Americans believe the war was a mistake and support some form of withdrawal, though numbers vary based on the speed of withdrawal.

A story in Politico documents some problems the McCain campaign is having in developing of a coherent message:

“McCain’s campaign seems not to have a game plan. I don’t see a consistent message,” said Ed Rollins, a veteran of Republican presidential campaigns. “As someone who has run campaigns, this campaign is not running smoothly. But none of this matters if they get their act together.”

Indeed, some Republican officials who spoke to Politico noted that there is still time for the campaign to find its footing and that no campaign is without its detractors. But the bulk of those interviewed expressed serious concern about what has appeared to be an aimless campaign so far, one that has failed to take advantage of a four-month head start on Democrats and has showed little sign of gaining traction.

This strategic dissonance was on display recently, when McCain visited Santa Barbara — the site of a catastrophic oil spill in 1969 — to talk about the environment, just days after announcing his support for offshore drilling. A Rasmussen poll from earlier this month shows a majority of Americans do support offshore drilling, but the timing of the Santa Barbara campaign stop predictably drew throngs of protesters. It’s a mystery what the campaign was thinking when it scheduled this trip.

While it may be a testament to McCain’s character that he is willing to stand firm on controversial issues in the face of broad public opposition, it is a risky proposition for a major party presidential candidate. As the self-described underdog — and with his opponent apparently more in sync with the American people on the war and trade — it’s hard to see how this will be a viable strategy for McCain to win the White House.

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