At his four-day fete in Denver, Democratic Presidential contender Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) sought to reframe the Presidential race (BusinessWeek.com, 8/29/08) around the lunch-bucket economic issues he thinks give him the strongest appeal to squeezed middle-class voters. Now, as the spotlight turns to the Republican convention in St. Paul-Minneapolis, rival Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) takes his turn at trying to define the race around the issues on which he hopes he has a winning hand.
Much of McCain's campaign, of course, is based on his record on national security issues. But with the economy in the tank, he knows he has to make the sale on the economic front, as well. So at the top of the Arizona Senator's Twin Cities To-Do List will be heightened efforts to convince working-class and independent voters that the Republican alternative he's offering—low taxes, less government, and aggressive energy drilling—will do more to improve the economy and their lives than the spate of initiatives offered up by his rival.
With his surprise pick of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain may just have made that task a good deal easier. Soaring oil prices have caused energy to emerge as a central issue in the race.
The Energy Card
Already, McCain has made headway with voters with his full-throated backing for expanded offshore drilling, along with increased expansion of nuclear power, coal, and other energy sources. Analysts say that position, compared with Obama's focus on a longer-term strategy to boost alternative energy, is one reason McCain was able to even the race out before the conventions began.
"A lot of voters are saying we want cheaper gas and we don't care how we get it," says Charlie Cook, editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They'll take the clean stuff and the not-so-clean stuff, as well."
The McCain camp will keep that issue front and center in St. Paul, as it believes energy will provide a critical differentiation for voters as the debate over the rival economic policies heats up. Palin could be a key asset in that fight.
Daniel Clifton, Washington policy analyst for the Strategas Group, believes the pain caused by $4-a-gallon gasoline could make energy the core economic issue of the election, even more than housing or jobs. With Palin's aggressive support for opening the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (BusinessWeek.com, 8/29/08) to more drilling, and a husband who works on the North Slope, she "personifies the choice being offered," Clifton says. "Not only does she stand for energy independence and opening up different sources, her background also helps [Republicans] make the case that expanding drilling could also help create jobs."
Wooing Hillary's Voters
At the convention and beyond, the Palin pick should also help McCain's efforts to win greater support from women voters, which he'll need if he hopes to win. Already, his campaign has made a big bid to woo the unhappy Hillary Clinton voters who have vowed not to vote for Obama. McCain has met with some of them personally, and Palin openly made a pitch to them after accepting the nod from McCain in Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 29.
She could be particularly appealing to the struggling working-class women whom Obama has so far failed to win over. Since last spring, Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, McCain's chief pollster, identified these "Wal-Mart Women"—those who shop at the discounter once a week or more—as a key swing group (BusinessWeek, 8/17/08) in the election. Many voted for Bush in 2004. But now they're hard-hit by the downturn, and their loyalties are up for grabs by the candidate who can best convince them he can bolster economic security.
"Palin will have enormous appeal to the Wal-Mart (WMT) moms," says Clifton. "That could be a very big deal."
Different from Bush
When he hits the prime-time airwaves for his acceptance speech on the night of Sept. 4, McCain will also have to fend off the Democrats' newly aggressive attempts to brand his policies as little more than a third term for the Bush Administration. Separating himself more clearly from the Bush record will be critical, given the President's approval ratings, which are near historic lows, and recent polls showing that nearly 80% of those surveyed feel the country is headed in the wrong direction.
But making that distinction clear for the millions of voters tuning in to the proceedings from home will also require some tricky choreography in the Twin Cities. The Republican base—many of whom will be sitting in the audience at the Xcel Energy (XEL) Center—still gives Bush high marks.
So once Bush clears out of the arena after his speech on Sept. 1, expect McCain and his surrogates to ramp up criticism of the excessive spending and the huge government deficits that have characterized the Bush years. Attacking "Washington" for its buckets of red ink and pledging to eliminate the deficit by the end of a first McCain term—a pledge many analysts say is highly unrealistic—may be the safest way of differentiating himself from Bush on the economic front without attacking the President head on.
Reassuring the Base
"McCain's challenge overall on economic issues will be to convince core Republican voters that he'll continue to represent traditional positions of lower taxes and less government, while also reaching out to swing voters and convincing them he can make America a land of opportunity again," says Brian Nienaber, a vice-president at Tarrance Group, a Republican polling and strategy firm.
That commitment to shrinking government, along with his pledge to keep all the Bush tax cuts in place while lowering corporate taxes and offering up expanded tax credits for families with kids, will also feature heavily in his efforts to contrast his economic programs and experience with those of his rival—and to continue to raise questions about the Illinois Senator.
"McCain will need to paint Obama as a big-government guy, who will take money out of your wallet, while using the convention to argue that he himself is a proven leader who has gotten things done," says Nienaber.
Funny. That's not what we heard in Denver.