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McCain vies with Obama over ‘change’

The campaign argument could be decided by which group of voters shows up at the polls.

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“Some Democrats are apoplectic. They believe they’ve smelled the aroma of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry,” says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. “They believe Obama is making the same mistake, not fighting back hard enough and not going on the offensive.”

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McCain had to usurp the change theme from Obama if he had any chance of winning, says Mr. Sabato, because more than 80 percent of people believe the United States is on the wrong track. That’s the same reason McCain has had to abandon a high-road campaign strategy and go negative, say he and other analysts.

“You can lose pretty or win ugly,” says Sabato. “Those are the choices today in American politics, and we know that the McCain campaign has chosen to win ugly.”

Negativity is a risk for McCain

But that, too, could backfire on McCain, because he has built his reputation as a “straight talker” by assailing the very style of smear tactics he’s now engaging in.

“He’s running a risk because, if anything, McCain is now probably worse than Bush [in terms of using negative tactics],” says David Bositis, a political analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

But a large question mark also surrounds what impact Obama’s Web-based campaign will have come Nov. 4. Back in 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean also relied on registering and inspiring young new voters. Prior to the New Hampshire and Iowa primaries, his strategists were dismissing polls showing him to be losing ground, noting that many young people have only cellphones and, thus, weren’t being picked up pollsters who rely on land-line numbers. Mr. Dean never made it past the primaries.

“Dean also didn’t really have much in the way of organization, but what has been one of the most remarkable things about Obama’s campaign has been that he’s been such an incredible organizer,” says Mr. Bositis. “He’s used the Web and texting and a whole series of new techniques, so it’s hard for us to know what’s really going on.”

After his loss, Dean took over the Democratic National Committee and implemented what was at the time a controversial 50-state strategy that has revived many moribund local Democratic operations. Many Democrats now credit that in part for their successes in the 2006 midterm congressional elections.

But it’s unclear whether that change will have an impact on the presidential level.

“To quote Buffalo Springfield, for what it’s worth, ‘Something’s going on here, but it ain’t exactly clear,’ ” says Professor Muzzio.

Other analysts are skeptical that anything has really changed.

“I’ve heard it too many times: We’re registering tons of new voters, we’re changing the calculus of American politics,” says Sabato. “I’ve lived too long and I’ve heard it too often – maybe in an extremely close election it will make a difference, but I still don’t think it will win the election.”

Sabato also notes that the race for the Electoral College, which Obama has dominated for months, now appears to be tightening. “It’s looking a lot like 2004 again,” he says. But he cautions that there are at least 50 more days to go in what’s proved to be a volatile and fast-moving campaign.