By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Democratic governors from states likely to help decide the 2008 presidential election see Republican Sen. John McCain as a potentially formidable opponent whose life story and reputation for political independence make him a threat in November, despite conditions that they say now favor their nominee.
"To quote President Bush, McCain is never to be misunderestimated," said Gov. Janet Napolitano of Arizona, McCain's home state. "He's a tough campaigner."
"In some ways," said Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, a state that is considered a must-win for any Democratic nominee, "he's the ideal [Republican] candidate for Pennsylvania."
As Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) continue to battle for the Democratic nomination, McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has the luxury of beginning his general-election campaign.
McCain still has work to do inside his party as he tries to overcome conservative resistance to his candidacy. But Democratic governors for the most part assume Republicans will rally around McCain, leaving him free to shift his attention to the center of the electorate.
"He is appealing in Michigan," said Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who supports Clinton. "He does appeal to independent thinkers -- at least he did in the past -- and we have a lot of those in Michigan. Whoever the Democrat is, Michigan is a state where we're going to have to work."
Rendell, also a Clinton supporter, said McCain can compete for votes in southeastern Pennsylvania, where suburban voters generally favor abortion rights, and in western Pennsylvania, where many strongly oppose abortion.
"He's going to contest for those suburban voters that have been delivering Pennsylvania to Democratic presidential candidates for the last four elections," Rendell said. "He will be the strongest Republican to contest for their votes. And he does it without sacrificing the ability to go after conservative, pro-life Democrats in the western part of the state."
Napolitano, who backs Obama, acknowledged that with McCain as the GOP nominee, Democrats may face a stiffer challenge in winning Rocky Mountain states that have voted Republican in most recent elections but whose changing demographics make them Democratic targets.
"If I'm the Republican nominee and I'm John McCain, I do not take those states for granted," she said. "But it does change the strategy [for the Democrats]." She said the goal should be tying McCain closely to President Bush.
"I think John McCain could have an appeal to a lot of Ohioans," said Gov. Ted Strickland, a Clinton supporter. "I don't think it's a given that John McCain can't win the election. I just think that, rightly or wrongly, he is perceived as a straight-talking, independent, honest person." But if McCain appears to be pandering to his party's conservative base, Strickland said, he might not do as well.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Clinton supporter, said McCain's biography, which includes more than five years in a North Vietnamese prison camp, makes him "a formidable challenge" in the fall campaign. "But I do think that the wave of change and the reaction to these last really disastrous years to our country under George W. Bush is going to be difficult for him to overcome."
Other Democratic governors also balanced positive assessments of McCain with criticisms. Granholm said Iraq and the economy could undermine him in her state.
"Michigan is not in favor of 100 years in Iraq," she said, referring to McCain's statement that a long-term commitment in Iraq -- though not an all-out war -- might be acceptable to help stabilize that country. "He's got to be strong about not entering into new trade agreements that give away the store," she continued. "On those two issues, I think he's going to be vulnerable."
Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius said a McCain-Obama race would provide "the absolute matchup that contrasts the past and the future." Sebelius has endorsed Obama, and when asked how he would compare with McCain as a potential commander in chief in the eyes of voters, she pointed to the 1996 race between President Bill Clinton and former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.).
Like O'Malley, she cited McCain's personal story of courage and heroism but recalled that Dole, too, was a war hero with a powerful personal story but nonetheless lost his bid to "a young leader who had a different vision of America."
Republican governors, including several who supported McCain early, even before his campaign went into a tailspin last summer, said he will present a contrast with either Obama or Clinton that voters will find attractive.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty cited McCain's work on global warming and his efforts to overhaul immigration law as characteristics that give him appeal beyond the traditional Republican coalition.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels said McCain offers "a different face for the party" in a race in which "we're going to face the most left-wing presidential candidate, whichever it is, that the country has seen nominated."
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford supported McCain's candidacy in 2000 but remains neutral this year. Noting polls that show Obama leading McCain in general-election tests, Sanford said the campaign will look far different by Labor Day.
"As [Obama] beings to fill in the blanks of what change means, a lot of the jet fuel that's been fueling his campaign is going to be taken out of his gas tank," he said.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.