Galvanized Parties Head to Homestretch

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 4 -- Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will begin the final 60 days of their general-election campaign with a political climate still more favorable for Democrats but with Republicans newly united and confident that they can compete for the undecided voters who still harbor doubts about both presidential nominees.

Once the air clears from an unusually compressed two weeks of politics that saw the selection of two vice presidential candidates and back-to-back national conventions, advisers to McCain and Obama foresee the same competitive race, but with some of the battle lines redrawn.

Obama's challenge will be to deflect Republican attacks, repeated frequently this week, that he lacks the experience and accomplishments needed to step into the presidency. McCain's challenges include parrying Democratic assertions that, on the big issues of the Iraq war and the economy, his administration would continue the policies of President Bush. But he also hopes to convince voters that he more than Obama would bring real change and bipartisan governance to Washington.

The other key for both is to take hold of the economic issue, which remains paramount for more voters than any other. Democrats spent more time at their convention on this subject than Republicans did, but strategists on both sides say that neither candidate has taken charge of it.

The conclusion of the Republican convention here Thursday night stood in sharp contrast to the Democrats' final night in Denver a week ago, when Obama spoke to more than 80,000 people at an outdoor football stadium and delivered perhaps his toughest and most direct criticism of McCain.

Here in St. Paul, McCain spoke indoors at a hockey arena and did not even try to compete with Obama, either in theatrics or in oratory. McCain delivered the speech in workmanlike fashion, with both praise and criticism of his rival. But the message was explicit: He has been there for the tough fights all his life, while his opponent has not.

Obama emerged from his convention with his party united after his grueling primary contest with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and the take-no-chances choice of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate, a sign of his campaign's confidence that the race may be his to lose. It was McCain, through his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate and an acceptance speech that included challenges to his own party, who clearly sought to shake up the race and force voters to see it from a new angle. Republicans said Thursday that they think the gamble could pay off.

Palin's turbulent introduction and a speech that electrified convention delegates on Wednesday produced an unexpected surge of energy and unity within the Republicans' conservative base. If that holds up, it could narrow a sizable enthusiasm gap between the parties that has been seen as one of the Democrats' most important advantages in the general election.

That gap has been seen in polling, as well as in voter-registration figures in key states that show a swelling of Democratic support. It has become a big part of Obama's strategy to enlarge and change the composition of the electorate and what his advisers say may be one of the most underreported aspects of the campaign.

Earlier in the week, McCain advisers openly acknowledged the steep hill they must climb to overcome the Democrats' advantages. They said that to win the general election, McCain must run past, if not away from, his party, which means winning over voters who do not consider themselves Republicans, making McCain's route to victory more difficult than Obama's.

"We actually have to go find votes because right now if the election were held today we probably don't have as many votes as Barack Obama," Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, told Washington Post reporters and editors on Tuesday. "So we have a whole advocacy need to not only transcend where our party is, but to be able to punch through all these environmental problems we've got."

But the Palin reception may have begun to redress some of that disadvantage. "The race has changed" in the past few days "in that she has energized and galvanized and breathed new life into the Republican Party that none of us thought was possible and didn't anticipate," McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt said Thursday.

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