Add Gustav to McCain's challenges

Now it's the Republican's turn to frame the election according to his terms

Election 2008

August 31, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,paul.west@baltsun.com

St. Paul, Minn. - Nothing ever seems to come easily for John McCain.

Last year at this time, his Straight Talk bus was running on fumes, and there were predictions that he'd soon be out of the presidential race. Now, just as he's about to claim his party's nomination - a prize he began pursuing almost a decade ago -natural disaster looms.

A major hurricane is threatening to disrupt McCain's plans to use this week's Republican Party convention to promote his reputation for independent thinking, reinforce his call for reform and assail his Democratic rival.

The storm bearing down on the Gulf Coast could hardly come at a worse time. Regardless of where it strikes, nature has reminded the country of the greatest domestic failure of George W. Bush's presidency: the tragically hapless federal government response to Hurricane Katrina.

"The original maverick," as McCain's campaign ads brand him, lived up to that moniker Friday when he unexpectedly chose Sarah Palin, an obscure but energetic first-term governor of Alaska, for vice president. He called her part of his plan to "shake up Washington" and its politics of "me first and country second."

By choosing a social conservative, McCain may already have achieved one of his top convention goals: firing up the party base, including Christian conservatives, who were valuable foot soldiers in Bush's 2004 re-election.

One of McCain's biggest political problems has been a lack of enthusiasm among conservative Republicans, many of whom supported other candidates in the primaries and remain unconvinced that McCain shares their beliefs. He was booed at a conference of conservative activists last winter.

"He's shown his independence," said Chris Henick, a Republican strategist. "The question now is, has he refreshed the party?"

Another challenge: the age issue. At 72, McCain would be the oldest man ever to assume the presidency.

Picking the 44-year-old Palin - an avid distance runner and mother of five - instantly gave his ticket a more youthful aspect. Attractive images of a beaming McCain with the photogenic governor, a former beauty queen, graced TV screens and newspaper front pages this weekend.

McCain's and Palin's acceptance speeches are this week's main events. They may have a hard time drawing a TV audience that approaches the 40 million who saw Obama address an outdoor spectacle complete with fireworks.

The Democrats' successful convention boosted Obama to an eight-point national lead, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll, and made the Republican sequel that much more important.

Going into the back-to-back conventions, McCain had pulled into a tie with Obama - overcoming what polls show is a decided Democratic advantage this year, because of the sour economy and Bush's unpopularity. The closeness of the contest left some Democrats in Denver pessimistic about their ticket's prospects in November.

Strategists in both parties credited McCain's tough tactics over the past six weeks for making the race closer than expected. Obama's Senate colleague from Illinois, Richard J. Durbin, compared McCain's summer success to a 12-0 run in a basketball game.

Republicans are hoping for a similar run this week. Conventions offer presidential candidates a unique opportunity to deliver carefully scripted messages to a national audience, and this is McCain's turn to have his say.

The Arizona senator would like to frame the election around the question of who is best prepared to lead the country. Democrats want it to be a referendum on Bush's presidency and portray McCain, who supported Bush's agenda at least 90 percent of the time on congressional votes, as more of the same.

"McCain needs to continue to make the case that he is ready to lead and Barack Obama is not. That is the essential definition of this election," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It can never be mean or angry, but John McCain is now beautifully set up to continue his fundamental message, which is: The world is a dangerous place. Put somebody in charge who knows what he's doing."

Scott Reed, a Republican consultant from Annapolis, said McCain "needs the convention to really stick it to Obama, because Obama is still more undefined than people think, and voters are showing they are nervous about him." He said that McCain also needs to present a forward-looking agenda, "what a McCain presidency would look like."

First, though, Republicans must pass the baton from their current president to the man they hope will take his place.

The Bush-McCain history is a complicated one. McCain was Bush's toughest foe in the 2000 primaries, and he bucked the president by becoming one of the few Republicans to vote against Bush's signature tax cut plan. In 2004, however, McCain embraced Bush's re-election with considerable ardor.

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