Archive for Sunday, March 23, 2008

With nomination sewn up, McCain lacks strategy

March 23, 2008


— Lucky for John McCain that he is the senior senator from Arizona, not the governor. He doesn't have to worry about the state revenue shortfall, which has been the angry preoccupation of Phoenix for weeks. He's not being drawn into taking a position on a possible hiring and promotion freeze for state workers. He doesn't have to weigh in on tax breaks for homeowners and businesses converting to solar power.

That's his advantage, and it is not a small one. While Gov. Michael S. Dukakis was planning his general-election campaign two decades ago, he was drawn into a swamp of state issues that distracted and disoriented him at a time when he should have been worrying about George H.W. Bush, not the Republicans in the Massachusetts State House.

But McCain, fortunate to have the Republican nomination struggle safely behind him, now faces an odd and awkward problem: What should he do now?

It's too early to begin the fight against the Democratic nominee, in part because no one can guess who the nominee will be, and in part because it is 32 weeks before Election Day. It's tough to get much attention, what with Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama slugging and slogging through Pennsylvania and soaking up all the interest. McCain has won his race, but he's struggling for oxygen.

During the last election in which no president was running for re-election, eight years ago, both the Republican (George W. Bush) and the Democratic (Al Gore) nomination races were sewn up by about this time in March. This election is far different. The Democratic race could go all the way to June, perhaps to the opening of the convention in August. That places an unusual burden on the party that, according to the conventional wisdom, is lucky not to have to endure weeks or months more of bickering, name-calling, accusations and innuendo.

But that's not all. McCain is in the especially difficult position of positioning himself to woo Democrats and independents even as he struggles to retain, or perhaps to win, the allegiance of Republicans. The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News Poll shows that 52 percent of Republicans say they would have preferred someone besides McCain as their party's presidential nominee.

So far, only a handful of possible McCain events are being contemplated in Pennsylvania before the April 22 primary. Right now, Team McCain has concluded that it is better to sit back and let the Democrats beat their brains out than to try to compete for media attention with Obama and Clinton.

"The Democrats have a very, very serious problem," says Jim Roddey, the former Allegheny County executive who is running McCain's fund-raising operation in southwestern Pennsylvania. "Hillary has got to be banking on the superdelegates to put her over. She can't possibly win otherwise. If the superdelegates put her over, the Obama campaign will absolutely go berserk. There's no telling what kind of reaction they will have if the Clintons pull a fast one on them. That could put McCain in the driver's seat."

It's rapidly becoming apparent, however, that McCain is falling into the same trap that ensnared both Al Gore, the Democrats' 2000 nominee, and Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 nominee: They won a nomination in early March, but never developed much of a strategy for using the time after their primary and caucus opponents had been vanquished.

McCain's options are limited. He doesn't have a specific rival to target, so he (or, more likely, his surrogates) cannot do what presidential nominees often do to their rivals, which is to seek to define them for the electorate before they can do it themselves. Normally a candidate with superior experience in foreign policy can emphasize world affairs - George H.W. Bush is a good example - but McCain is constrained from that tactic because he is so closely identified with the war in Iraq, which is unpopular among the voters, and which is why last week's trip to the region was such a risk.

This conundrum presents itself at a time when Democratic voters are far more engaged, far more enthusiastic, far more committed than their Republican counterparts. The Democrats face big challenges resolving their close nomination fight, with inevitable heartbreak among the losing candidate and his or her supporters, but the party remains united in its opposition to the foreign-policy and economic policies of President Bush.

The Clinton family knows well that a little controversy and a little mystery - emphasis on "little" - can be good for a campaign. Bill Clinton emerged as the apparent nominee after he won the Georgia primary in early March 1992, but the emergence of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot as a potentially formidable third-party challenger kept interest in the campaign high.

Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, stoked interest in his race by resigning from the Senate in June after more than a third of a century on Capitol Hill; majority leaders don't leave the chamber every day. The move provided him with a forum to make an important point about his career and character: "I trust in the hard way, for little has come to me except the hard way."

McCain, a prisoner of war for more than five years in North Vietnam, has almost always trod the hard way, which makes his new predicament, born of the easy way he moved to the nomination once the political season got under way in January, especially ironic. The road ahead for him holds relatively few obstacles, or at least visible obstacles. But in presidential politics, if not on the interstate highway system, the easy road can sometimes become the hard road. That's where McCain is traveling now, and he must make the most of it.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.


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