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Next test for McCain and Palin: winning undecideds

McCain and Palin fired up their base, but they’ll need to attract independents and some Democrats to win.

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Republicans weathered a distracting hurricane, then closed ranks to contain fallout from news that Palin’s unwed 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. The discipline was notable for a campaign ridiculed as messageless as recently as a few months ago, and taken for dead over the summer.

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But in other ways, the terrain for Republicans remains mountainous. Obama, who accepted the Democratic presidential nomination last week, leads McCain by nearly six points in an average of polls compiled by the website Real Clear Politics. Less than a third of Americans approve of President George Bush, the party’s standard-bearer for the past eight years.

Voter surveys earlier this week found that a Palin vice presidency makes scant difference to most women. Even after her selection last Friday, Democrats were nearly 50 percent more likely than Republicans to feel enthusiastic about voting this year, according to a Gallup poll.

For Republicans, the race is likely to be won, or lost, in Pennsylvania and the populous Midwestern battlegrounds of Ohio and Michigan. Also important are a string of states Bush won in 2004 but where Obama now leads – even if by a whisker – in the polls: Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Up for grabs are economically struggling but socially conservative voters – both blue-collar and middle class – who may have stayed home or backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the primaries and are now on the fence.

“McCain will win the South, Obama will win the East and West coasts,” says GOP strategist John Bell. “The real fight is going to be in the Midwest and in Pennsylvania.”
To win those states, he says, McCain has to paint Obama as a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing – a traditional tax-raising liberal hiding behind an unearned image as bipartisan uniter. At the same time, he has to toughen his defenses against efforts by Democrats to tar him as an heir to Bush.

“Since he clinched the nomination, I think he’s made a credible case that he’d be different from Bush,” Mr. Bell says. “But that job is never done. The Democrats will never let go of that issue, so it’s a challenge.”

Speakers at the GOP convention turned at least a few times to the Karl Rove phrase book, condemning Hollywood celebrities, the “left-wing media” and, in Bush’s televised speech, “the angry left.”

But those lines were aimed more at electrifying the convention hall and the party’s activists than at the millions of Americans watching on television.

As Jacobs sees it, the partisan gestures of the past week – including Palin’s selection – were a plea for clemency for the next two months, when McCain is likely to tack toward the political center and underline his reputation as a maverick.

“It’s a Faustian bargain he’s made with his party,” Jacobs says. “It’s ‘I’m going to give you the V.P., but then I get to do what I want, then I get a free pass to run against the party.’”