It’s another big week in presidential politics, with Hillary Clinton needing a very big win tomorrow in Pennsylvania over frontrunner Barack Obama to maintain relevance and John McCain trying to show he’s a “different kind of Republican” with his tour of the “Forgotten Parts of America.”
John McCain is doing quite well. He’s ahead of Obama and Clinton in many, though hardly all, polls at a time when the Republican president is near record levels of unpopularity. His party’s far right wing is acceding to the obvious and starting to come on board. Clinton and company show signs of wanting to torpedo Obama into unelectability, though it’s unlikely the Democrats would reward her four years from now with the nomination she was supposed to win so handily this time out.
But for all the ongoing battling between Barack and Hillary, McCain isn’t building much of a lead. Obama, with 1.4 million contributors, mostly on the Internet, has raised three times as much money as McCain. And while last week was dominated in our media by endless talk about such things as small town values and flag pins — driven, naturally, by people who don’t have small town values or wear flag pins — and that’s good for the Republicans, some other things happened that might have more lasting impact.
The price of crude oil shot up seven dollars a barrel last week alone, hitting an all-time of $117 per barrel.
Gasoline is crashing through the $4 per gallon “barrier.” It became ever more apparent that the country is in a recession. And that there is no coherent strategy to eradicate the leadership cadre of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, with one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, new House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman, a backer of the Iraq invasion, receiving a congressional investigative report.
So McCain’s tour of the Forgotten America — now called the “Time For Action” tour — comes at an important moment. McCain kicks things off today in Selma, Alabama, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of the infamous 1965 incident known as “Bloody Sunday” in which peaceful civil rights marchers were attacked by police with clubs and tear gas. From Selma, says the campaign, “John McCain will travel across the country visiting regions that have been forgotten and left behind by our nation’s elected leaders.”
He’ll tour such places as Alabama’s “Black Belt,” so-called for the color of the earth there, and coincidentally heavily African-American, the old steel town of Youngstown, Ohio, Appalachia, and perhaps New Orleans. McCain wants to show that he is a Republican who can relate to blacks, Latinos, and economically distressed whites.
If Clinton somehow finds a way to overcome Obama’s lead, McCain could, at least on the margin, blunt the usual overwhelming Democratic margins among black voters. Running against Obama, McCain believes he has a shot at a big Latino vote, in part because of his work on the immigration issue that so many conservatives found upsetting. White working class and small town voters are an area of some vulnerability for Obama. Bitter, anyone? And reaching out in this way is reassuring to independent and moderate voters that McCain is not a hardline conservative.
Of course, the Democrats aren’t going to simply allow McCain to cherry pick their constituencies. The Democratic National Committee will dog him every step of the way this week. And he may struggle to show how his economic policies are different from those of the unpopular president. While he’s bashing some corporate titans for greed, the most direct boost in his package for lower and middle income voters is a summertime suspension of the federal gas tax. His middle class tax relief, aside from allowing higher deductions for children, mainly consists of a repeal of the alternative minimum tax. That would mostly benefit people making over $200,000 a year.
Still, symbolism counts for a lot in politics. It will be interesting to see how the Vietnam War hero fares in some places that would certainly not be welcoming to the current occupant of the White House.
Tomorrow night in Pennsylvania, we’ll get a better idea about how much longer the brawl for the Democratic presidential nomination will last. This is probably, due to its older demographics and closed-to-independents primary, the best big state in the country for the Clintons. Hillary needs a very big win there to make any dent in Obama’s lead in earned delegates and the popular vote. Even if she gets that, it’s hard to see her making up much ground elsewhere in the other contests remaining between now and June 3rd, when Montana and South Dakota close out the primary and caucus season.
The Clinton attacks on Obama have done more to drive up her negatives than Obama’s. And her Bosnian Adventure has been more damaging than the Wright Stuff and Bittergate. Hillary’s level of trustworthiness has plummeted, perhaps rendering her unelectable as a result even though the Republicans have not attacked her, concentrating their fire instead on Obama.
If Clinton fails to win big tomorrow in Pennsylvania, look for more big-time Dems to consolidate around Obama. Last Friday was a very telling day, with Southern Democratic icons Sam Nunn and David Boren — the former Georgia senator who ran the Senate Armed Services Committee and the former Oklahoma senator who ran the Senate Intelligence Committee — coming out for Obama. Along with liberal former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Oxford classmate when they were Rhodes Scholars together 40 years ago. And Hillary Clinton’s Yale Law classmate after that.
More of that is in store.
I’ll have full “Game Day” coverage of the Pennsylvania primary throughout the day tomorrow, working with bloggers and contacts inside and outside of the contest state.