By Jonathan Martins

“As he has many times on the campaign trail, John McCain Saturday night used an anecdote when asked about his Christian faith.

Recalling his time as a POW, McCain spoke of one guard who quietly loosened the ropes on his hands. Later, McCain shared, that same guard drew the image of a cross in the dirt.

This story was recounted as part of McCain’s Christmas-season ad and in mailers around the holiday.

But some on the left, having heard it for the first time at the Saddlback forum, are now asserting McCain has lifted the story from the recently deceased Russian dissident, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

No mainstream media outlet — to my knowledge — has picked up this claim, but the McCain campaign, seeing both risk and opportunity, has raised it to denounce it.

Writes campaign blogger Michael Goldfarb:

The only similarity between the two stories is a cross in the dirt, but it is hardly an unlikely coincidence that there were practicing Christians in both Russia and Vietnam, or that in the prisons of those two Communist countries the only crosses to be found were etched in the dirt, as easily disappeared as the Christians who drew them.

But those desperate to discredit Senator McCain’s record will have to impugn his fellow prisoners as well. Orson Swindle, who was held as a prisoner of war along with McCain, tells the McCain Report that he heard this particular story from McCain “when we first moved in together.” That was in the summer of 1971, Swindle said, though “time blurred” and he couldn’t be sure. He said it was some time around then that the Vietnamese moved all “36 troublemakers” into the same quarters, where they “talked about everything under the sun.” 

Why would McCain’s campaign legitimize the unsubstantiated attacks of those on the left by highlighting the issue? They may have been concerned it was on the verge of getting traction and wanted to pre-emptively shoot down, with a firsthand account from another POW. Speaking for myself, I’ve gotten numerous e-mails from liberal-leaning readers raising the matter.

But there is also an opportunity here which explains their decision. At every turn in the primary and general, McCain’s campaign has jumped at the chance to play the role of victim. To have political opponents question what exactly went on in the Hanoi Hilton offers McCain’s campaign not just the chance to discuss his Vietnam service but to also score some equivalence in the victim column at a time when his rival is variously accused as being un-American, a closet Muslim and a Manchurian Candidate among other things. By pointing to such allegations as this, McCain can make the case that Obama isn’t the only one being smeared.”