In 1976, they nearly beat Carter with the fear card.
A fresh-faced Democratic presidential candidate promising change. An economy in turmoil. A nation soured on Republican rule.
It sounds like a recipe for a big win for Sen. Barack Obama this November. It also sounds a lot like the 1976 campaign, which I covered as White House correspondent for the Associated Press. And if history is any guide, don't count the GOP out just yet.
In August 1976, after winning the Republican nomination in Kansas City, Mo., Gerald Ford invited GOP VIPs to his summer retreat in Vail, Colo., to plot strategy for the November election against Jimmy Carter, who at that time enjoyed a nearly insurmountable advantage in opinion polls. Indeed, as summer peaked, Mr. Carter was doubling Ford's support in surveys – capturing nearly 70 percent.
Yet there they stood: Ford, his vice presidential nominee Bob Dole, Nelson Rockefeller, a line of Republican biggies that seemed to stretch across the golf course where they assembled, all mouthing banalities about how the GOP could come from behind and win.
At the far end stood John Connally, the Democrat turned Republican who, in his extemporaneous remarks, laid out a strategy for miraculously closing that huge gap in the polls.
It is the same strategy Republicans could use well to defeat Senator Obama should his current momentum propel him to win the Democratic presidential nomination.
Last in line, and almost as an afterthought, the clever Mr. Connally feigned indignation and effectively asked, "Who is this Jimmy Carter? We don't know anything about him!"
It was a brilliant soliloquy aimed at planting doubts in voters' minds. Connally, so ably schooled in Texas politics, continued that theme for the next five minutes, dismantling Carter's promises of change and hope. The former Texas governor skillfully set the tone for the entire post- Labor Day Republican election campaign.
Weekly, Carter's numbers began to drop. It was so simple. Sow doubt and fear about the outsider from Georgia, the newcomer, inexperienced in international affairs in the age of the Soviet Union. Connally nurtured skepticism about Carter's ability to lead America out of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate traumas.
Like Obama, Carter was promising hope and change. But the yearning for change was epidermal, and something more powerful was lurking deeper in the American psyche then, and I suspect, now. Connally played the fear card, the fear of the unknown candidate and what foreboding tragedies Carter's thin résumé in national politics might produce.
By the time Americans voted in November 1976, Carter had to stay up till nearly 3 o'clock in the morning to learn if he had really won. With polls closing so rapidly in Ford's favor, had the campaign lasted another week, I suspect Ford might well have won the presidency on his own terms, despite Watergate, embarrassing revelations about CIA scandals, and the humiliation of Vietnam.
Should he ultimately become the Democratic nominee, Obama's credentials currently seem paper thin. A one-term senator from Illinois, he appears as inexperienced as he is telegenic. He talks of getting out of Iraq in his first term, but he has not explained how.
Does he realize that powerful interests such as the Israeli lobby, Saudi Arabia, and Big Oil may see a continuing American presence in Iraq in their interests and they are more than capable of thwarting the intent of an inexperienced first-term president?
To extricate more than 100,000 US troops from Iraq, Obama will have to get the US defense establishment in his corner. That's not an impossible task, but it won't be easy, given the Pentagon's traditional allegiance to Republican presidents.
Surely, if Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, not long after he becomes his party's candidate, a latter-day Connally is going to ask indignantly, "Who is this Barack Obama? What does he know about keeping the oil flowing in the Middle East? Does he understand that militant political Islam is waging an open-ended war against the West? What are his qualifications for dealing with China after the Olympics honeymoon ends? And how prepared is he to negotiate with disillusioned American allies as well as a resurging and belligerent Russia?"
Obama is basking in the glow of tinselly primary victories now. But even if he defeats Hillary Rodham Clinton, he faces a very hard sell if he is to move beyond the current popularity contests where smiles serve as a substitute for substance.
If he cannot pass the Connally test and convincingly tell voters who he is and what he will do, the Republicans will have him for lunch in November.