Wednesday, April 23, 2008

McCain manufacturing a victory

Democratic distractions allowing GOP candidate Rust Belt inroads.

WASHINGTON - If there was any doubt that the drawn-out primary season is taking a toll on the Democratic Party's chances for victory in November, look no further than the events of April 15. As Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama raised the stakes (and the rhetoric) in Pennsylvania, John McCain finally decided to frame the economic debate. His speech on the economy got full cable TV coverage, while stories on Obama and Clinton were focused exclusively on "bitterness." The economy was supposed to be Democrats' ace in the hole this year. After all, a Republican can't win in the Rust Belt when the economy is in the tank, right?

McCain's speech touched on a lot of familiar territory, such as ending earmarks, ditching the alternative minimum tax and attacking Democrats as tax-and-spenders. On job retraining, McCain once again reminded his audience about jobs that are "not coming back." That phrase fell like a lead balloon in the face of Mitt Romney when he promised to fight for lost auto industry jobs in Michigan.

But McCain's speech began, notably, with an empathetic approach to those impacted by the economic downturn. He railed against the "extravagant salaries and severance deals of CEOs," and he called for a summer holiday on gas taxes.

The "I feel your pain" McCain is also featured in a new ad currently running in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It features an upbeat voice-over and hits on some of the same concerns raised in the speech -- like portable and affordable health care and mortgage debt restructuring. He may still offer some "straight talk," but it has a decidedly less "eat your vegetables" tone.

To be sure, McCain's overall economic philosophy hasn't changed (as the Democratic White House hopefuls were quick to point out in e-mailed press releases), but his approach may have. Will it be enough to win the support of voters who are decidedly pessimistic about the economy and President Bush? Or will Democratic attacks on his support for (and previous disavowal of) the Bush tax cuts undermine his credibility on the issue? More important, can McCain buck historical trends and win the White House by carrying Rust Belt voters in a recession?

Gallup has measured voter satisfaction with the direction of the country since 1979. Today, just 19 percent of Americans say they are satisfied. Only twice in the poll's history have voters felt more pessimistic than they do today: in 1979, when that measure sank to an all-time low of 12 percent, and in June 1992 (14 percent).

In the presidential elections of 1980 and 1992, the incumbent party was defeated soundly and the Rust Belt went overwhelmingly to the challenger. In his rout of President Jimmy Carter in '80, Ronald Reagan took all the Rust Belt states except Minnesota and West Virginia, after Carter had carried most of the region four years earlier. In '92, Bill Clinton carried Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Pennsylvania, after George H.W. Bush had won most of the Rust Belt states in 1988.

This year, Democrats are counting on attracting Reagan Democrats by pointing to the flailing economy. This issue more than any other could help the party overcome the "culture gap" that has sent these voters into the arms of the GOP for the last few years.

Republicans were giddy about Obama's comments on guns, religion and bitterness, since they allowed the GOP to frame Obama in the mold of Michael Dukakis and John Kerry. But the brie/endive/Chardonnay attacks of '88 and '04 came when the GOP brand was in much better shape. Wind-surfin', Swiss-cheesesteak eatin', French-lookin' Kerry still won Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Why would Obama do any worse?

The answer, of course, gets us right back to the uncomfortable issue of race -- or at least that's the conclusion many reach when considering why Obama's not been able to break through with downscale white voters. Just imagine if Joseph Biden or Christopher Dodd had made similar remarks; would they be written off with autoworkers in Michigan?

Democratic superdelegates seem to have little choice but to rally behind Obama. But if Obama wins the nomination without the support of Rust Belt working-class whites, will McCain be able to pick off what should be reliable blue states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as swing states like Ohio?

If Obama doesn't take Ohio in the general, he could still get to 270 electoral votes by carrying New Mexico and Iowa (states won by Al Gore but not Kerry), but he would then need to pick up six more EVs to win the election; a win in Colorado (9 EVs) or Virginia (13 EVs) would do it. But if he loses in Pennsylvania or Michigan, the path to 270 gets much more difficult. Obama may espouse a new kind of politics, but the old-school Rust Belt remains the key to winning the White House.

Original story on MSNBC

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Barak Obama's lead over John McCain evaporates as Democrats fight

A month after clinching the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain of Arizona appears to be enjoying a honeymoon with American voters, wiping out the national lead that Barack Obama, the Democrat hopeful, once had over him according to a new Associated-Ipsos poll.

The new buoyancy of the McCain campaign may have less to do with the senator, of course, and more with the relentless mutual point-scoring between Mr Obama and his rival, Hillary Clinton, as they battle for votes in the coming Pennsylvania primary.

While Mr Obama showed a double-digit lead over Mr McCain in a similar poll taken in late February, the latest numbers show them exactly tied at 45 per cent each. Perhaps more alarming for the Obama camp, the survey has Mrs Clinton with a slight edge with 48 per cent to 45 per cent for Mr McCain.

The survey has also rekindled alarm in the Democratic Party that the continuing warfare between its two remaining candidates may be inflicting sufficient damage to give Mr McCain a window to defeat whichever of the two of them ends up running for the White House in November.

It is no coincidence that this week has seen the Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean, stepping up his own attacks on Mr McCain. Unveiling his own polling taken in 17 battleground states, he contended that voters consider the Republican "weak" and "wishy-washy" on key issues, particularly the economy. Voters are also voicing concern about his age, Mr Dean said. At 72, Mr McCain would be the oldest person ever to be newly elected to the presidency.

Unfettered by any further primary contests, Mr McCain is back on the road, visiting often far-away corners of numerous states to begin selling himself to voters. Yesterday, he addressed a rally at the municipal airport in Lubbock, Texas.

Of course, the dynamics of the presidential contest could change again once the identity of the Democratic nominee has been settled. In particular, Republican grandees are expressing concern that, for the first time in some decades, the Democrats – particularly if Mr Obama ends up prevailing – could be in a position significantly to outspend Mr McCain in the campaign running to November.

"There are not enough zeroes to define how badly we are going to be outspent," Eddie Mahe, a former deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee, warned yesterday.

With the Pennsylvania primary only 10 days away, there remains little saying how each Democratic candidate will fare, with some observers still giving Mr Obama an outside chance of catching up with Mrs Clinton in the state she was always slated to win and possibly beating her. That remains a long-shot for Mr Obama, but if he succeeds it would surely be a knock-out punch for Mrs Clinton.

She continued last week to struggle to get her campaign back on message, and her husband did not help by reviving the fuss about Mrs Clinton "misstating" she had come under fire in Bosnia.

Mr Obama remained on his bus tour through Pennsylvania yesterday, trying to burnish his economic platform with a call for "say-on-pay" legislation that would increase scrutiny of fat pay packets awarded to corporate executives.

In a populist pitch, he said last night: "We've seen what happens when CEOs are paid for doing a job no matter how bad a job they're doing. We can't afford to postpone reform any longer."

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