A series of forceful speeches at the Republican National Convention this week – particularly Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s roof raiser Wednesday – turbocharged GOP activists searching a gloomy political landscape for something to feel good about.
But the 8-1/2 weeks until Election Day will bring the real test: convincing enough undecided voters, many only now tuning into the race, that John McCain should be president.
That fight, political analysts say, will turn in large measure on Senator McCain’s ability to wrest the mantle of “change” from Sen. Barack Obama and win independents and conservative Democrats in swing states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan.
“The shift we saw at the convention was away from a strict reliance on the experience card, to a revamped message that McCain will bring about the right kind of change,” says Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.
“This is not a Karl Rove play-the-base strategy,” he added, referring to President Bush’s former strategist who won elections with partisan wedges like gay marriage and abortion. “This is a really significant shift away from that.”
“Can you imagine how they’re going to shake up Washington?” former New York mayor and GOP presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani called out in his speech here Wednesday, referring to McCain and Governor Palin. “Look out!”
A new television ad – casting Palin as a bipartisan reformer and “Alaska maverick” – underscores the approach.
“The Palin nomination excited and united the base,” says James Campbell, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo, in New York. “Now he has to win over moderates.”
By Professor Jacobs’s estimate, McCain would have to win some 55 percent of independents and more than 15 percent of Democrats – a tall order – to defeat Senator Obama.
The week yielded some encouraging signs for Republicans. McCain’s choice of Palin as running mate drew rave reviews from conservatives wary of the Arizona senator – plus $7 million, the campaign’s largest single day of contributions. Speakers at the Xcel Energy Center here nailed in place the image of McCain as a battle-tested American hero with a proven record of reform, in contrast to a Democratic rival longer on words than deeds.
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.
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.’”