McCain facing tricky balancing act

Ohio shows task of holding the base of conservatives while competing with Obama for center

June 10, 2008|By Peter Wallsten | Peter Wallsten,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CINCINNATI - As the architect of Ohio's ballot measure against gay marriage, Phil Burress helped draw thousands of conservative voters to the polls in 2004, most of whom also cast ballots to re-elect President Bush. So, Burress was not surprised when two high-level staffers from John McCain's campaign dropped by his office, asking for his help this autumn.

What surprised Burress was how badly the meeting went. He says he tried, but failed, to make the McCain team understand how much work remained to overcome the skepticism of social conservatives. Burress ended up cutting off the campaign officials as they spoke. "He doesn't want to associate with us," Burress now says of McCain, "and we don't want to associate with him."

That meeting and other missteps, some Republicans say, have revealed a surprising lack of deftness on the part of McCain's campaign as it begins to tackle some of its fundamental challenges: unifying a Republican Party that has distrusted many of his policy positions, and building the machinery needed to push voters to the polls in November.

If McCain tried to gather his volunteers in Ohio, "You could meet in a phone booth," said Bill Cunningham, a radio host who attacks the senator regularly on his talk show. "There's no sense in this part of Ohio that John McCain is a conservative or that his election would have a material benefit to conservatism."

Were McCain running on President Bush's strategy from 2004, fractures like these might be devastating. Bush and his chief political hand, Karl Rove, built their winning plan on exciting conservatives with hard-line, often religious-themed rhetoric and policy proposals, such as backing the gay marriage ban and giving churches federal funds to perform social services.

But as the 2008 general election campaign begins, it is clear that this year will be different. Both McCain and presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama hope to energize core party activists, but each also hopes to win votes in the political center: from the independents, moderate women, blue-collar whites and Hispanics who tend to swing from one party to the other, and who are turned off by highly partisan rhetoric.

For McCain, who has spent the last four months stockpiling money and planning the fall campaign, these constituencies might prove difficult to balance. As his run-ins with some conservatives here show, burnishing his image as an independent-minded Republican has sometimes left bruised feelings among the GOP base.

Some Republicans say they also are troubled that the McCain campaign has not been faster to build a get-out-the-vote operation in Ohio, which as in past years is expected to be a key battleground. These Republicans, who have a close-up view of events, worry that McCain will be overpowered by Obama's proven ability to motivate activists.

"I'm going to be very honest with everyone in this room," said Alex Triantafilou, Hamilton County GOP chairman, as he threw his hands in the air during a speech last week at a Republican club dinner in suburban Cincinnati. "We are a little bit frustrated with the ability of the McCain campaign to get going."

This time four years ago, Triantafilou recalled, he had taken leave from his county government job to work full time for President Bush's re-election. "By June 1, we were humping hard on the presidential campaign," he said. While waiting for the McCain team, the county party has launched a voter registration drive of its own.

Volunteers such as Triantafilou were crucial to the Republicans' 2004 strategy, which entailed sorting through voting histories, church affiliation data and consumer information - such as magazine subscriptions and grocery store purchases - to identify millions of potential new conservative supporters. Then, volunteers would visit or call these people and urge them to vote.

Many political analysts say the strategy played a large role in Bush's re-election. Bush won Ohio, for example, by about 120,000 votes - roughly equal to the combined margins of victory in the GOP-leaning communities around Cincinnati, where the voter-identification plan was used heavily.

This time, Republican officials say, they are preparing to use these so-called "data mining" techniques to reach voters, but will point it at an additional segment of the electorate: the independent and swing voters that Obama also is targeting.

For McCain, the challenge is to win enough of these voters to make up for a potential lack of passion among conservatives, and he is betting that his image as an independent and moderate views on issues such as global warming will help. McCain is positioned to "find a new layer of voters. ... that's probably not available to the average Republican," said Mike DuHaime, a McCain campaign adviser.

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