McCain sets strategy: Goes after moderates
Faced with a crumbling Republican Party image, Sen. John McCain is gambling on a general-election strategy that relies on winning over conservative Democrats and independents, breaking with President Bush’s 2000 and 2004 game plan of focusing on the party’s core voters.
“This time, we are working to get a larger share than normal of independents and conservative Democrats, mainly because our own base is narrower than four years ago,” said McCain campaign senior adviser Charles Black, who has been a part of every GOP presidential campaign since Ronald Reagan’s nomination run in 1976.
The Arizona senator has spent his time campaigning on De-
mocrats’ ground since he sewed up the Republican nomination March 4.
He was on a weeklong tour to discuss his concern over health care costs last week, and recently completed a weeklong tour of impover ished areas where Republicans don’t often campaign. That included a highprofile visit to Inez, Ky., where former President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his war on poverty and the place former Democratic presidential hopeful and former Sen. John Edwards visited during his own populist campaign.
Some of Mr. McCain’s tactics make it seem as if he is chasing Mr. Edwards’ Democratic supporters by adopting a populist criticism of “greedy” corporate CEOs and by traveling to New Orleans to deliver a rebuke to Mr. Bush — the city Mr. Edwards used to launch, and later end, his own presidential bid.
Noting there are more De- mocrats and independents up for grabs than in recent elections, Frank J. Donatelli, the Republican National Committee’s deputy chairman, says Mr. McCain needs a center-right coalition to win, just as the Democrat will need a center-left coalition.
“We intend to beat them to the center,” he said.
The risk for Mr. McCain’s appealing to the center is that occasionally he will have to “cross pressure” his base on certain issues and causes, which inevitably will rub orthodox conservatives the wrong way and worsen his relations with them.
“It ignores the reality that it is the people on the right who are the activists in the party,” said pollster and strategist Michael McKenna, who said those voters make up Republicans’ get-outthe-vote effort.
“How is Ohio or Pennsylvania or Missouri going to be won by someone with no phone banks, no micro-targeting, no get-outthe-vote effort? Short answer: They are not going to be won. The fundraising numbers are a reflection of this phenomenon.”
Mr. McKenna said about 40 percent of the electorate is reli- ably Republican, 40 percent is Democrat and the rest is truly up for grabs — and this year that’s bad news for Mr. McCain.
“I suspect that some chunk of the independents have already decided it is time to change the team at the White House. My guess is that the best he can hope for is to get about 40 percent of the independents. My math suggests that means he is chasing about 8 percent of the electorate, while ignoring or angering about 40 percent — the self-identified conservatives,” Mr. McKenna said.
To some critics, Mr. McCain has acted as if he was somehow unaware of just how much his sponsorship of campaign finance regulations, one-time opposition to the Bush tax cuts and support of Mr. Bush’s immigration policies had infuriated some leaders and grass-roots activists on the right.
But the reward might outweigh the risk, at least at this time, with polls continuing to show that Democrats say they’re willing to abandon the party unless their candidate wins the party’s divisive nominating contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who also had a successful run as chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Mr. McCain’s plan to target the middle makes sense this year.
“McCain has appeal to some voters in 2008 that George Bush wouldn’t appeal to in 2004, and he’s got the luxury at this stage of seeing how far he can push that,” Mr. Barbour said.
He also said he doubts Republicans will abandon Mr. McCain this year.
“I think a lot of Republicans who will consider the Democrats, or will have considered the Democrats during the course of the year, at the end of the day, will say that’s not the change I want. That’s what they did in 1988,” he said, referring to the race between then-Vice President George H.W. Bush and Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
Mr. Black said the reason the GOP has a smaller pool of loyalists from which to draw is the damage inflicted by Republican overspending, the Bush administration’s conduct of the Iraq war and its handling of Hurricane Katrina. On the generic ballot, Democrats are 12 points to 15 points ahead.
“In 2000 and 2004, the two parties were roughly even so if you turned out your own base, then to win you needed only a few other voters who weren’t from your party — and that’s not true right now,” Mr. Black said.
Mr. Black said the strategy has less to do with Mr. McCain’s maverick reputation — or with some conservatives’ snappish views that Mr. McCain long has been every Democrat’s favorite liberal.
“I don’t think it has much to do with McCain,” Mr. Black said. “He is known nationally as independent-minded and that puts him in a strong position to overcome the damage done to the Republican brand.”
These are differences based on principle but do have political benefits in that he was not in lock step with President Bush on every big issue over the last few years,” he said. Among those differences with Mr. Bush were spending, which Mr. Black said is the biggest issue, the Iraq war and climate change.