McCain Woos the Undecided

The GOP Presidential nominee used his acceptance speech to polish his image as a tough reformer who knows how to fix the economy

Well, it didn't have quite as many fireworks as Senator Barack Obama's performance in Denver last week—either the real kind or the rhetorical kind. And it lacked the dramatic tension of the national debut of Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. But in a low-key, at times passionate, speech on Sept. 4, Senator John McCain officially joined the fight against Obama as he accepted the nomination to become his party's standard bearer before an enthusiastic crowd at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.

Much of McCain's speech, like much of his campaign, was devoted to burnishing the nominee's image as a strong leader devoted to serving his country and a tough, independent-minded reformer who will be more effective at fixing the nation's capital than his Democratic rival. Taking aim at the "constant partisan rancor" that permeates the political process, he vowed to bring a different tone. "Change is coming" to Washington, he told the Republican convention-goers and the millions watching back at home.

But McCain knows he can't win on those issues alone. With the economy rated the most important issue in the election—and Obama sharpening his own pitch on the economy in the last few weeks—the Arizona senator also used his night in the national spotlight to begin the much tougher job of convincing voters that he knows more about jump-starting the economy (BusinessWeek, 6/19/08) than the Democratic contender.

Aiming at Obama

"I will keep taxes low and cut them where I can. My opponent will raise them. I will open new markets to our goods and services. My opponent will close them. I will cut government spending. He will increase it," McCain said, as the crowd booed each time he mentioned his rival. "My tax cuts will create jobs. His tax increases will eliminate them. My health-care plan will make it easier for more Americans to find and keep good health-care insurance. His plan will force small businesses to cut jobs, reduce wages, and force families into a government-run health-care system where a bureaucrat stands between you and your doctor."

As the race heads into its intense final stretch, the question for McCain is whether an economic program focused largely on cutting taxes, expanded oil drilling (, 8/29/08), greater dependence on private insurers to fix the health-care system, and a broad push to slash government spending will be enough to win over financially strapped voters and convince them that he really gets the economy's woes.

"He's got to show that he understands the challenges facing the American worker, that he can really speak to the bread-and-butter issues they're dealing with," says Tim Adams, the policy director for President George Bush's 2004 reelection campaign and a former undersecretary of the Treasury who is now at the Lindsey Group, an economic consulting firm. "He'll have to lay out the fundamental challenges ahead and, more important, draw a sharper distinction [with Obama] in how he would resolve them."

Distancing Himself from Bush

Of course, first McCain will have to convince voters that he'll do a better job than President George W. Bush. McCain will be working in the two remaining months of the campaign to fend off the Obama camp's efforts to tag his stewardship of the economy (, 8/28/08) as offering little more than a third Bush term. That's a key reason why so many of the convention speakers focused on burnishing McCain's credentials as a reformer, including surprise Vice-President pick Palin, who brings her own strong reputation as a reformer to the ticket.

By seeking an image as someone who will take on the wasteful spending that has proliferated during the Bush years and fight the vested interests many blame for Washington's gridlock, McCain is hoping to send a clear signal to voters that he'll be a different kind of Republican President. Indeed, that may have been the biggest take-away from his St. Paul speech. "I've fought big spenders in both parties, who waste your money on things you neither need nor want, while you struggle to buy groceries, fill your gas tank, and make your mortgage payment," he said to cheers. "I've fought to get million-dollar checks out of our elections. I've fought lobbyists who stole from Indian tribes. I fought crooked deals in the Pentagon. I fought tobacco companies and trial lawyers, drug companies, and union bosses."

At a press lunch in Minneapolis earlier this week, Doug Holtz-Eakin, the former head of the Congressional Budget Office who is now McCain's chief economic adviser, argued that there are three critical ways that McCain differs from Bush on the economy: on energy, where he has supported a broader array of alternative energy; on housing, where he moved faster than the President to back legislation aimed at helping homeowners unable to pay their mortgages to refinance; and on health care, where he has offered up more comprehensive plans to resolve the problems of skyrocketing costs and lack of access than anything contemplated by the Bush Administration. "He's interested in these sorts of tough issues—the types of things that really have gone unaddressed for a long time," says Holtz-Eakin.

More Than the Non-Bush

As voters gain more sense of those differences, Republican strategists argue that the attempts by the Obama campaign to tie McCain to the current Administration's policies—and by extension, voters' unhappiness with the current state of the economy—will fall flat.

Simply defining himself as the non-Bush won't be enough, however. Sure, his heavy emphasis on tax cuts is popular. No one wants to pay higher taxes, points out Sara Taylor, a former director of political affairs under Bush. And McCain's heavy emphasis on expanding offshore drilling, along with developing other energy sources, has been a big hit with voters in the face of $4-a-gallon gasoline. But Taylor argues that if McCain is truly going to close the deal, "He needs to make it clearer to people what would happen to people's paychecks if Obama wins, what kind of tax hikes they can expect, or what having a greater government role in the health-care system would mean for their choices."

McCain must also put forth a stronger sense of his own positive vision for the economy and show the average American voter more clearly how he would tackle the problems they face in everything from dealing with the housing crisis to succeeding in the ever more competitive global economy. He began that job in St. Paul, highlighting plans to offer more help to those who haven't benefited from the more open economy even as he touched only lightly on his support for free trade.

Fewer Undecided Voters

"Opening new markets and preparing workers to compete in the world economy is essential to our future prosperity," he said. "I know some of you have been left behind in the changing economy and it often seems your government hasn't even noticed. Government assistance for unemployed workers was designed for the economy of the 1950s. That's going to change on my watch."

A good start, but strategists say he'll need to do more. "He's got a lot of strong individual pieces, like his plans on energy, or health care, or taxes," says Terry Nelson, McCain's former campaign manager and the political director for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. But one reason many voters still aren't convinced McCain can lead the economy in the right direction is that the individual plans "are not unified under one strong economic message."

As McCain recalibrates his campaign for the final stretch ahead, he will also find himself fighting over an increasingly small sliver of voters who remain undecided. According to a recent Gallup poll, Obama's lead has grown in the last two weeks. Just before the conventions began, 36% of the voters surveyed favored Obama, 34% preferred McCain, while 30% were up for grabs. But by Sept. 4, Obama had gained the backing of 42% of voters, while 37% favored McCain; those still undecided fell to 21%.

Women Voters Are Key

McCain could get a bounce out of his convention, but the pool of voters who are still trying to decide is growing smaller. And the controversial nomination of Palin made clear that winning the allegiance of women voters will be at the heart of that fight. Typically, that's not a good scenario for a Republican Presidential candidate, since women voters tend to favor the Democrats. The questions that remain about Obama and McCain's traditional appeal among independent voters, however, have created an opportunity for the Arizona senator. According to Gallup, he led Obama among white women by 48% to 44% in early September.

Ultimately, strategists from both parties say, whichever of the two candidates does a better job arriving at a sharp message that convinces voters he can improve the economy and their lives will likely win. "People are still far from being resolved," says Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies, McCain's chief pollster.

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