Obama Has the Upper Hand. But McCain Can Still Take Him.
John McCain is America's favorite kind of candidate. With his record of extraordinary patriotism and his distinctive Senate tenure, McCain is a nominee whom voters from both parties -- and independents, too -- could easily support.
But he has been dealt a terrible hand: a tanking economy, an unpopular war, a Republican incumbent whose approval ratings are at their all-time low and a gloomy national mood, with 82 percent of Americans saying in a Washington Post-ABC News poll last week that the country is on the wrong track. Political scientists add all that up and predict that the Democrats are destined to win the White House. But I don't do political science; I do politics, and I'm convinced that McCain can still win -- if he's willing to follow the road map below.
McCain needs to not run as a traditional Republican, which is easy, since he's not one. After all, how did an anti-torture, anti-tobacco, pro-campaign finance reform, anti-pork, pro-alternative-energy Republican ever emerge from the primaries alive? Simple: The GOP electorate, along with the rest of the country, has moved somewhat to the left. (In Florida, for example, exit polls showed that only 27 percent of Republican primary voters described themselves as "very conservative," while 28 percent said they were "moderate" and 2 percent said they were "very liberal.")
Meanwhile, McCain's likely rival, Barack Obama, has raised such doubts among voters that their concerns momentarily energized even Hillary Rodham Clinton's sagging campaign. With the help of the incendiary comments of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's negatives have been rising even as he nears the finish line.
Still, voters are tending heavily toward the Democratic Party. Normally, party preferences are about even, but recent national polls give Democrats a decided edge. In last week's Post-ABC poll, 53 percent of Americans identified themselves as Democrats or leaned toward the party, compared with 39 percent who were Republicans or tilted to the GOP.
To sum it up: A candidate who cannot get elected is being nominated by a party that cannot be defeated, while a candidate who is eminently electable is running as the nominee of a party doomed to defeat.
In this environment, McCain can win by running to the center.
His base will be there for him; indeed, it will turn out in massive numbers. Wright has become the honorary chairman of McCain's get-out-the-vote efforts. It would be nice to think that race isn't a factor in American politics anymore, but it is. The growing fear of Obama, who remains something of an unknown, will drag every last white Republican male off the golf course to vote for McCain, and he will need no further laying-on of hands from either evangelical Christians or fiscal conservatives.
So McCain doesn't have to spend a lot of time wooing his base. What he does need to do is reduce the size of the synapse over which independents and fearful Democrats need to pass in order to back his candidacy. If the synapse is wide, they will stay with Obama. But if they perceive McCain as an acceptable alternative, there is every chance that they will cross over to back him in November.
If the GOP nominee were Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee, independents and Democrats might not vote Republican even if they became convinced that Obama is some kind of sleeper agent sent to charm and conquer our democracy. Even Rudy Giuliani, with his penchant for confrontation, might have elicited sufficient doubts among Democrats to hold them in line for Obama. But McCain doesn't threaten anyone. Everyone can appreciate the ordeal that tested his courage in Vietnam, and independents and Democrats can celebrate much of his legislative record. Voting for McCain is an easy sell.
Except, of course, for Iraq. This is his biggest problem -- the one issue that impales the Arizona senator and hampers his ability to induce liberals to cross the line.
Earlier in the race, Iraq might have been a deal-breaker. But a kinder, gentler war has emerged. U.S. combat deaths are way down, and the de facto U.S. alliance with Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province against al-Qaeda in Iraq seems to have dramatically improved the security situation. Still, most Americans don't like the war, and McCain must deal with their opposition if he wants to win.