McCain sets strat­egy: Goes af­ter moder­ates

The Washington Times Weekly - - Front Page - By Ralph Z. Hallow and Stephen Di­nan

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.

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