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.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, argued that Democrats remain better positioned. Both nominees now have unified bases, but he said that Obama still has the advantage by virtue of his ability to increase turnout significantly over what it was four years ago. "Who's going to really expand the pie over where it was in 2004?" he asked.
Obama's campaign has tried to expand not just the electorate but the electoral map, running ads in such GOP presidential strongholds as Alaska, North Dakota and North Carolina. McCain advisers argued this week that with the choice of Palin and other factors, the real battlegrounds are mostly the same as they were in the past.
McCain's team is now confident that it will win Alaska and Montana, both targets of the Obama campaign. His advisers also doubt that Obama has any real chance of winning Georgia, where Democrats are mounting registration drives to enlarge the electorate, or North Carolina, where Obama scored a big victory in the primaries.
Obama has stopped running ads in Alaska, but Plouffe said the state remains a target, as do the others cited by McCain as almost out of reach. "We still have a wider map than McCain does," he said.
Obama hopes to put Colorado, Nevada and Virginia, three traditionally strong GOP states, into his column. He also has an advantage now in two states that Bush narrowly won in 2004: Iowa and New Mexico.
McCain advisers know that Iowa is a particular challenge because he has never really competed there in either of his nomination battles. But they hope to counter by capturing New Hampshire, the state that launched McCain in 2000 and saved him in 2008.
But four other states now loom largest: Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Obama did not compete in Florida or Michigan during the primaries because of Democratic Party sanctions. He lost Ohio and Pennsylvania to Clinton.
McCain advisers see Florida as very competitive but likely to end up their column. They consider Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania as key to the election, believing that whoever wins two of the three in the industrial heartland will win.
The vice presidential candidates may be called upon to play central roles in the battle for these states. Biden, who was raised in a working-class family in Scranton, Pa., will vouch for Obama among white voters there. McCain's team plans to use Palin to woo small-town and rural voters in those states, projecting herself as one of them, a "hockey mom" who shares their values.
But Obama advisers predict Palin will not play as well among independents as she does with the Republican base. "With independent women, we don't see any evidence that she helps," Plouffe said. "Their ticket has taken a harder turn to the right in the last six days. Our sense is that that's not what independent women are looking for."
Coming out of the conventions, the two parties appear highly polarized. Both campaigns now anticipate that close to nine in 10 Republicans will vote for McCain and the same percentage of Democrats will vote for Obama. The challenge for Obama will come among voters who supported Clinton in the primaries. The battle will be over independents, loosely affiliated voters, suburban women, working-class whites, and Latinos.
Obama advisers argue that they have an easier job of keeping their base energized and reaching out to independents. McCain, they say, must deliver a mixed message. Palin, who is more conservative than McCain, will be used to lock down the GOP base, but McCain will have to convince independents that he is anything but a typical Republican.
Neil Newhouse, a Republican pollster, said McCain must pitch his general-election message to disaffected Democrats and independents. "More than 35 percent of McCain's votes have to come from 'Bush disapprovers' for him to win," he said.
McCain will emphasize his reform message and play the national security card. "The fault line in this election is between voters who are looking for hope and optimism and those who are looking for security and safety," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin said. "McCain is not in the game with those who are looking for a leader who will give them hope, so he has to maximize his support among those who want security -- typically older whites without a college degree."
McCain spent the summer attacking Obama in the hope that he could get to this point with the race still close. He has managed to do that. Now with the choice of Palin, he has placed another bet that he can change the race even more in the final two months.