By Michael Abramowitz and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 23, 2008
GREEN, Ohio, Oct. 22 -- Sen. John McCain campaigned across Ohio with Sarah Palin at his side Wednesday, drawing energized crowds of GOP partisans while his campaign dismissed the latest controversy over his running mate as coming from elitists and not representing the opinions of average Americans.
Appearing before a cheering throng of supporters at a high school football field near Akron, McCain and Palin reprised their criticism of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama as a big spender intent on raising taxes and redistributing wealth. But McCain reserved some of his sharpest rhetoric for a round of media interviews, telling radio talk show host Don Imus that he was "entertained by the elitist attitude" toward Palin and attributing criticism of his running mate to the fact that she was not part of the "Georgetown cocktail party" circuit.
"I think she's most qualified of any that has run recently for vice president, tell you the truth," McCain said, citing her experience as a small-town mayor and Alaska governor. He added: "Bill Clinton was pretty well derided when he came out of a small state to run for president of the United States," and he pronounced himself "amazed" at the criticism.
McCain's language underscored the frustration inside his campaign over the wave of negative publicity that has surrounded Palin in recent weeks. When she was first introduced to the country as his running mate in late August, Palin provided a jolt of energy to the campaign, helping McCain consolidate restive conservatives and pull even with Obama in the weeks after the GOP convention. Obama has since opened a lead in most surveys, including a lead of 11 points in the most recent Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll, released Wednesday.
But there is little sign that Palin has expanded her appeal beyond the GOP base, and she has been dogged by a steady of stream of politically damaging news, including the continuing investigation into her role in the firing of a state trooper in Alaska, her struggles in a series of network interviews and comments about "real America" that she later apologized for. The latest controversy involves a report that the Republican National Committee spent $150,000 on makeup consultations and clothes at high-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks in New York and St. Louis.
McCain aides dismissed the story, first reported by Politico, as of little significance in a period of financial and foreign crises. But some senior Republicans in Washington expressed concern that the disclosure could undercut her image as a "hockey mom" who can relate to ordinary citizens. "Voters are more worried about the economy," said McCain adviser Mark Salter, dismissing the suggestion that Palin had become a drag on the ticket. "She generates big crowds," he said. "She generates excitement everywhere she goes."
Palin has hardly been the only contributing factor in McCain's lagging fortunes. From the start of the general-election campaign, he has run against the headwinds of an ailing economy, an unpopular president of the same party, a GOP brand that is in disarray. Obama, meanwhile, has avoided major missteps and built significant financial and organizational advantages.
Where the selection of Palin was once seen as an asset, a majority of voters now say McCain's vice presidential pick reflects poorly on the decisions he would make as president, according to the Post-ABC News poll. Overall, 52 percent of likely voters said they are less confident in McCain's judgment because his of surprise selection of Palin; 38 percent are more confident because of it. That represents a marked reversal from the initially positive reaction to the pick.
Several GOP sources expressed anger about the damage the clothing story was likely to do to the ticket, coming just as the campaign is making its closing argument by employing "Joe the Plumber" in an appeal to average Americans. "That's what grates me. We're the party that talks about looking out for the little guy," said one top Virginia Republican, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the GOP ticket. "Then something like that pops. It smacks of being hypocritical."
Saul Anuzis, the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said Palin remains a popular figure, particularly with conservatives in his state. "She has still been a net plus for us," he said.
But he conceded that the national party spending $150,000 on clothes for her was a "dumb political decision" that was not likely to play well among many of his hardscrabble voters. "You're talking to a guy who wears Lands' End shirts," Anuzis said. "I don't even know how you would spend $150,000 on clothes. You can get a pretty darn good men's suit for $300 to $500."
Mike DuHaime, McCain's national political director, called Palin's addition the ticket "a shot of adrenaline to our entire base, and not just our conservative base," adding: "She can appeal to conservative Democrats, to working women, and she can certainly rally Republican voters."
The campaign has continued to deploy the Alaska governor in some of the most competitive areas of the country. "To have a popular, successful female governor who can draw big crowds and who's good on television -- it is good for our party to have a popular woman governor on the ticket," DuHaime said.
Another McCain adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Palin continues to provide critical help in mobilizing Republican voters in GOP-leaning areas of battleground states that will be critical to determining the next president. By sending her to Florida's northern Panhandle, eastern North Carolina and Pennsylvania's "T" -- a region that includes Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre and State College -- the campaign is helping boost voter turnout on Election Day, the aide said.
"In these regions, she has very strong numbers. We've also seen, because of daily tracking polls, she's had a positive impact," the adviser said. "In these states, we're not at the margins we need to be successful. And in all of these regions, when she's been campaigning, she's been helping."
Palin continues to inspire considerable fervor among Republican activists, who have flocked to her rallies in large numbers.
"I love her -- she's just like me," said Pam Moore, a minister who attended the rally in Green on Wednesday. Moore dismissed the latest reports of the RNC-funded shopping: "They are just trying to find dirt, and it's sad that people are stooping that low."
At the rally this afternoon at a local high school, Palin demonstrated her populist touch as she called out to country singer Gretchen Wilson, who performed her hit song "Redneck Woman" before the GOP ticket took the stage. "I need to get your autograph before we leave," Palin told Wilson. "Someone called me a "redneck woman" once, and you know what I said back? 'Why, thank you.' "
"She's like one of us, just a normal, hardworking person, not someone from D.C. " said Ivan Capps, a Bureau of Land Management records manager who attended a Palin rally in Grand Junction, Colo.
But some of those interviewed expressed hesitancy about the pick. Barb Thomas, 67, a retired insurance administrator who lives near Harrisburg, Pa., said Palin is the only variable that could keep her from punching her ticket for McCain. "If something happened to McCain, I'm not sure she would be a good president," Thomas said. "That's one of the things that bothers me right now."
Eilperin was traveling with the Palin campaign. Staff writer Michael D. Shear and polling director Jon Cohen in Washington contributed to this report.