WASHINGTON – In the battle for independent voters, where the 2008 presidential election will be won, Barack Obama and John McCain start at a dead heat in polls – but there the similarity ends.
Senator Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, carries the label “most liberal senator,” per the National Journal magazine’s analysis of his voting record. His challenge, therefore, is to moderate his image – and recent actions show he is trying to do just that.
Senator McCain ranks as one of the less conservative Republicans in the Senate and brings to the race a record of regularly breaking with his party. In the three months since he locked up his party’s nomination, McCain hasn’t done much “moving to the middle,” but he doesn’t need to, Republicans say. Rather, he has sought to solidify his conservative bona fides, most recently in shifting his position on offshore oil drilling, which he now favors.
“When you’ve got a list [of unorthodox positions] as long as your arm, you don’t need a new issue to show how you’ve not gone along with conservative orthodoxy,” says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. He rattles off some of the areas where McCain makes conservatives uncomfortable: campaign finance, climate change, torture, and stem cell research.
Obama, in contrast, has made obvious moves to reassure middle America that he shares its values, and is not just a creature of the African American community and upper-income, educated left.
He now regularly wears an American flag pin, after taking much grief for not wearing one. His rhetoric on getting out of Iraq is more cautious. On Sunday, Father’s Day, he delivered a well-received Bill Cosby-esque speech about the responsibilities of fathers, aimed specifically at a black audience – he spoke in a black church in Chicago, though not his own former church – but also at the larger American electorate that is still getting comfortable with this new face in the political arena.
Hesitancy over Obama
Obama begins the general election campaign with a gale-force wind at his back. More than 80 percent of the public believes the nation is on the wrong track, with the economy struggling, gas prices soaring, a deeply unpopular Republican president, and no end in sight for the Iraq war. But national polls show Obama with just the slimmest of leads over McCain, an average of 4 points, which is just outside the margin of error.
The narrowness of his lead “is a sign that the public isn’t quite comfortable with Obama yet,” says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in California. “He’s somebody new on the scene, and people aren’t quite ready to give him the keys to the war room.”
A new set of polls released Wednesday shows Obama with leads in three key battleground states slightly higher than his national lead. Among likely voters, Obama tops McCain in Florida 47 to 43, in Ohio 48 to 42, and in Pennsylvania 52 to 40, according to the Connecticut-based Quinnipiac Poll.
Embedded in the data is a warning sign for Obama about his choice of running mate. While Democrats in all three states favor Obama’s former opponent for the vice-president nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton independents in all three states oppose the move.
“If Sen. Obama seriously is thinking about picking Sen. Clinton as his running mate, these numbers might cause him to reconsider,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in a statement. “The people who really matter come November – independent voters – turn thumbs down on the idea. And, many say they are less likely to vote for him if he puts her on the ticket.”
McCain’s shift on drilling
The independent vote is especially important for McCain in the fall, because self-identified Democrats now outnumber Republicans. So far, both Obama and McCain have faced challenges in consolidating their party bases behind them, but if Obama succeeds in winning over most Clinton supporters, then McCain will have to take the lion’s share of the independents.
The new Quinnipiac polls add to McCain’s challenge. His deficit in Florida, at least in the Quinnipiac poll, despite a healthy lead there in other major polls, shows that he cannot take Republican-leaning Florida for granted in November. And it demonstrates the potentially risky nature of his changed position toward opposing the federal ban on off-shore drilling. In Florida, it has been an article of faith that a politician could not be elected statewide if he or she supported drilling, which is seen as a potential environmental hazard.
The question is whether the soaring price of gas now outweighs the environmental concerns of Floridians.
“This is a pro-environment state, but it’s also a state with a lot of people on fixed incomes,” says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, Tampa. “The problem with gas prices is that every day it’s reinforced in voter’s minds. Every gas station sign they pass, they look up and get mad.”
Two key McCain backers in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist and Sen. Mel Martinez, have also tempered their opposition to off-shore drilling – a sign that conventional wisdom may be going out the window, as voters clamor for change.
President Bush also got on the bandwagon Wednesday, calling on Congress to lift the 26-year-old ban on drilling on the outer continental shelf for oil and gas. For McCain, the move had a double edge: It reinforced his position. But it also put the unpopular president in lock step with him, in a campaign where McCain has sought distance from Bush wherever possible.
Obama has joined environmental groups in criticizing the pro-drilling position. His campaign has called it a plan to “drill our way out of our energy crisis” and a gift to the big oil companies.
Still, Obama’s position “puts the burden on him to show what he can do, and when,” says Ms. MacManus. “No more generalities. The American public is somewhat patient, but not forever patient.”
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