McCain: `The luckiest man alive'

In focus -- politics

April 06, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON -- John McCain's disadvantages seem to keep multiplying.

He supports an unpopular war. His fundraising lags. The voters want change, and he's from the party in power. Now, Republican insiders are sniping at his campaign.

Where does all that leave McCain, seven months before the election? According to the latest polls, he is essentially running even with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"He continues to be the luckiest man alive," says Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who ran Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.

Mark Salter, a senior McCain strategist, says McCain is "the beneficiary of an unexpected gift" - a Democratic battle that shows no sign of ending.

Large numbers of Democratic voters have indicated that they'll support McCain if their candidate doesn't win the nomination.

"I think this is going to be a very close election," said Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, adding that it "wouldn't be a shock" if McCain won.

If that happens, it would be a breathtaking result, by historical standards. It would overturn one of the bedrock rules of presidential elections: During times of economic distress, voters punish the party in the White House.

The last time the national mood was as negative in a presidential election as it is this year, President George H. W. Bush got tossed out of office.

"Given the Democratic advantages, it shouldn't be close," said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center. "It's close because of the way that voters are able to see McCain as a potential agent of change, and no other Republican could have done that."

McCain's image isn't tethered to his party, a problem for him during the primaries, when the sincerity of his conservatism was in question. Those partisan shortcomings are now regarded, on balance, as pluses.

He is widely viewed as a reformer who challenged the establishment, including Republican leaders, on such issues as campaign finance and immigration.

McCain "is not seen like Bush by the voters," said Kohut.

A recent Pew poll showed McCain leading Obama by six points among independent voters, a key swing group that disapproves of Bush's performance as president. If Clinton is the nominee, McCain would cut into the Democratic advantage among voters under age 30, the poll found.

Top Clinton strategist Mark Penn has pointed out that McCain, a senator from the Southwest who has tried to put together a coalition for immigration reform, is well-positioned to bring Hispanic voters, the newest and fastest-growing sector of the electorate, back into the Republican fold.

Other Democratic strategists have noted that McCain's patriotic image and war-hero status could appeal to the white, socially conservative working-class voters, once known as Reagan Democrats, who are expected to be a pivotal group again this November.

His assets as a candidate also reflect the weaknesses of his Democratic rivals.

One of Obama's greatest liabilities, his lack of experience, plays directly into McCain's qualifications. His 48 years of public service are divided almost evenly between careers in the military and as a legislator in Washington.

Clinton's experience, polls show, is also a question mark, as are doubts about her trustworthiness. Americans were six times more likely to say they don't trust Clinton than McCain, according to a recent Gallup poll that probed the weaknesses of the presidential candidates.

Prejudice against an African-American or woman as president - difficult to measure accurately in opinion surveys - works to McCain's advantage. He would be the oldest person to get the job, but few of those who oppose McCain, 71, said it was because he was too old, according to Gallup.

A greater threat to McCain's chances are the issues that are likely to dominate the fall agenda, the economy and the war.

McCain and the Democratic nominee "will clash in the suburbs, and that will be a real test of strength," said Maslin, the Democratic polltaker. "You wonder, in McCain's case, is this a guy who can really talk in a sort of aggressive way about fixing the economy?"

Republican strategists not connected to McCain's campaign have been speaking out about his failure to raise more money, whip a campaign organization into shape and grab the public's attention while the Democrats are wrapped up in their fight.

McCain's biographical tour last week was a missed opportunity to showcase the policies he'd pursue as president, said one.

"He has to step back and look at the big picture more. He needs to produce an agenda. You can't just reread chapters of your 10-year-old book every day," said this strategist, a McCain supporter, who requested anonymity in order to speak more candidly about the campaign.

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