Sen. John McCain became the presumptive Republican nominee for president not with flashy speeches or a long embrace of traditional conservative values, but with a reputation as a straight-talking iconoclast.
Now, as the general election approaches, McCain (R-Ariz.) must somehow finesse his policy positions to hold on to GOP voters and appeal to independents – without jeopardizing the maverick reputation that is at the core of his national appeal.
It is already a juggling act for McCain – as his shift this week on government aid to mortgage holders facing foreclosure makes clear.
It all marks an unprecedented level of scrutiny on policy for this candidate who has attracted much of his support from people who like his leadership qualities, even if they disagree with him on issues. In the New Hampshire primary, for example, exit polls showed that 39 percent of Republican primary voters who think abortion should always be legal voted for McCain, despite his consistent opposition to abortion rights.
As McCain begins to navigate these waters, Democrats are making clear that they are ready to exploit his inconsistencies.
“He has damaged his own brand dramatically since 2000,” when he first ran for president, Dean said Thursday, during a briefing (pdf) with reporters at DNC headquarters, citing McCain’s shifts from go-it-alone positions on immigration, earmarks and tax cuts to more mainstream Republican stances.
Dean unveiled the results of a poll of swing voters in 17 swing states and said those findings, and related focus groups, showed that, as voters learned more about McCain’s current positions, they found him “wishy-washy.”
Allan Rivlin, a pollster who worked on the DNC survey, said the candidate’s indecisiveness “really undercuts McCain’s key attribute of being a strong and decisive leader.”
The Democrats’ poll found 54 percent of swing voters were confident in McCain’s ability to restore respect for America in the world. But in five other issues on the top of voters’ minds, including the economy, immigration and the war in Iraq, those with doubts far exceeded those with confidence in him.
A competing poll prepared for the Republican National Committee shows McCain in far better position, leading both Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) among independents. The internal survey, presented to Republican state chairmen last week, found that 73 percent of voters think McCain is a strong leader and 72 percent think he takes tough stands on issues.
But Amy Walter, editor of the Hotline, a Washington politics newsletter, says McCain still has a lot of work to do, even among Republicans.
She points to the newest Diageo/Hotline poll that showed Republican zeal for McCain dropping, from 50 percent of party primary voters who said in February that they would enthusiastically support him in the fall, to just 38 percent who said the same in late March.
The lack of enthusiasm doesn’t appear to be limited to regular voters.
Writing in National Review Online, John J. Pitney Jr., a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College, pointed to comments made by Rep. Thomas J. Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, about the presidential race to The New York Times. “I don’t need the nominee to win,” Cole said. “I just need him to be competitive enough that we can win behind him in the places that should be ours. I need him to be Gerald Ford.”
As Pitney explained, Cole was referring to the 1976 election when – following big losses in 1974 midterm contests — Republicans expected the worst.
“„And early in the 1976 campaign, they appeared to be dinosaurs looking at an incoming asteroid. Ford was heading for a wipe-out that would doom dozens of GOP lawmakers. Yet by Election Day, he had pulled almost even with Carter, enabling House and Senate Republicans to hold their own.
It was the perfect defeat. Its narrowness kept the party from going deeper into the hole, and its aftermath was GOP resurgence.
“Is it buyer’s remorse?” Walter wrote this week. “That seems unlikely, given that McCain’s done nothing to aggravate the base. It’s not like he’s been taking a more active stance on immigration policy or campaign finance reform.”
His weakness could reflect general GOP pessimism about holding on to the White House, Walter said. Or, perhaps it is the inevitable result of being crowned the winner of the primary. “When Republicans were forced to think about nominee McCain vs. nominee Mike Huckabee, McCain looked strongest.”
Whatever the explanation, the pressure is already mounting on McCain.
After Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing with Gen. David H. Petraeus to examine the Iraq war, McCain was forced to play defense on what is thought to be his strong suit, after again confusing Sunnis and Shiites. And critics will be standing by for his latest thinking on mortgages.
With nearly seven months to go until Election Day, McCain had better get used to the attention.
As the Hotline’s Walter put it, “McCain and the GOP want to have a fight in November that centers around character and patriotism. But for voters who are desperately looking for a break from the campaign rhetoric of the last eight years and are struggling with a sagging economy, that won’t be enough.”
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