This week in presidential politics will see Barack Obama further consolidating his hold on the Democratic Party, John McCain pushing for daylight between himself and President Bush, and Obama and McCain stepping up their increasingly likely general election duel.
Unless a meteor hits Barack Obama, he’s the Democratic presidential nominee and a slight favorite against the only Republican who could win this year, John McCain.
In last week’s Monday morning column, I wrote that Obama was already rebounding from the ill effects of Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s media tour the week before and would have a pretty good week. Actually, Obama did better than I thought, crushing Hillary Clinton by a more-than-expected 15 points in North Carolina, the last big primary, and losing by an eyelash in Indiana, where Rush Limbaugh’s Operation Chaos probably gave Hillary her slight edge.
Since then, Obama took the lead among the declared superdelegates, the last great Clinton hope, and Hillary turned out, according to sources, to be about $25 million in debt. Obama took a 10-point lead over Clinton nationally in the Rasmussen tracking poll and, more important, saw his favorable rating slightly surpass that of John McCain for the first time since March 10th, with Hillary’s popularity third among the three candidates. Obama is showing a lot of resilience in the midst of weeks of frenetic media coverage of Bittergate and the two outbreaks of the Wright Stuff. He seems to have an almost Reagan-like teflon. Like Ronald Reagan, Obama survives controversies which his angry partisan opponents predict will destroy him.
Clinton will nonetheless run through the final primaries on June 3rd. By that point, given the pace at which superdelegate endorsements are coming for Obama, he may have enough delegates to clinch the nomination. Obama will certainly win the majority of earned delegates -those won in the primaries and caucuses- on May 20th in Oregon. But for the unusual institution of the superdelegates -where Hillary started with a big edge but which are now breaking inexorably for Obama- that would be it for Obama right there.
Hillary will win big tomorrow in West Virginia, a state in which her husband the former president is very popular. West Virginia is nearly all-white, with the lowest median family income and lowest proportion of college graduates of any state in the country.
A few late primary wins will add to Hillary’s sense of pride, as well as her leverage as she and Bill try to marshal their remaining political capital into a continuing role in the party over which they’ve held sway for the past 16 years. They also hope against hope for last-minute deliverance. But I’m told by Clinton associates that there is also a certain relief that some of their big problems -where the massive contributions for the Clinton Library are coming from, how Bill made his post-presidential fortune, Hillary’s past work for the Black Panthers, etc.- aren’t likely to be chewed on for months in the media.
Nevertheless, the power curve moves on. While Hillary struggled for meetings with congressional superdelegates, Obama was mobbed as a rock star when he sauntered onto the floor of the House of Representatives. And Rasmussen, the only daily national tracking poll, run by Republican and ESPN co-founder Scott Rasmussen is dropping Clinton from its polling, devoting its resources to McCain vs. Obama.
The denouement for the Clintons will be interesting. But the race for the White House continues in a much more fascinating direction. The deal was a breathless 24/7 run from Christmas through February 5th’s Super-Duper Tuesday. At which point, I expected John McCain and Barack Obama to emerge as the nominees. McCain won through on time, though it took a little while for the Republicans to acknowledge their only candidate who could win, even after he knocked Mitt Romney out of the race in the California primary.
But Obama has taken longer. After winning Iowa, as forecast here, he lost New Hampshire. Whoops, not as forecast. Thanks to what will be seen as former President Bill Clinton’s last great strategems/moves in electoral politics. The race has dragged on since, and in a sense, drags on still. But only in a sense. Obama will continue campaigning in primary states but will increasingly turn his attention to the battle with John McCain, visiting old-style swing states such as Ohio and Florida and Pennsylvania and new-style swing states in the West, the Upper Midwest, and the Chesapeake region.
Meanwhile, Team McCain, which has been mostly ignoring Hillary for months in favor of attacks on Obama, is planning for what it sees as a difficult but winnable race against the freshman Illinois senator.
In my talks with McCain advisors, they are very well aware that this is a rough year for Republicans, with defeats having come already in special congressional elections. President Bush has a near record low job approval rating. Some 80 percent of the voters think America is moving in the wrong direction.
The Republican brand is battered. The Democratic brand is significantly more popular. And independents are on the rise.
In this environment, a strategy focused principally on mobilizing the base, as in the 2000 and 2004 elections, will fail. Even if Rev. Wright is conveniently ranting his infamous greatest hits 24/7 on all media outlets and all the other Obama boogie men -Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko, Rashid Khalidi- become household names. That doesn’t mean these associations won’t be issues. It does mean they won’t be as determinative as many have imagined.
McCain has to hold on to a declining base and at the same time appeal to moderates and independents.
I caught up with McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt for a video interview in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I’ll get more into that when the video of Schmidt -who was also director of the Bush/Cheney war room, counselor to the Vice President Cheney, and campaign manager for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger- runs here at Pajamas Media.
For now, get used to McCain pushing the climate change issue as a key differentiator with Bush, and means of appealing to moderates in both parties and independent voters. In fact, McCain is giving a big speech today in Oregon about the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote alternative energy, including nuclear as well as the usual renewable portfolio. There will be a lot more of this, along with more reminders that it was only when Bush finally adopted McCain’s surge strategy that the mess in Iraq showed some real improvement.
Will it be enough for McCain to avoid having the profoundly unpopular Bush hung like a millstone around his neck?
Obama will be painted as inexperienced, which he obviously is, and hence very risky. A big taxer who would stifle the economy as it’s struggling, an unsteady hand at the tiller in time of war with Islamic jihadists.
Team McCain wants joint town hall/debate appearances with Obama. Which the Democratic candidate seems amenable to.
That would be a big plus for McCain, who is likely to be heavily outspent by Obama. Team Obama is now prepping a TV ad campaign to define McCain as more of the same. Having McCain on stage with Obama in a freewheeling situation -and McCain, who pales in comparison to Obama as a platform speaker, is a past master at the town hall format- could defuse the coming onslaught of negative advertising imagery against him.
But it’s risky for McCain, too, for Obama may seem less threatening in that format, as well. And the physical contrast between them -Obama is taller, and a quarter-century younger- could be stark.
On the other hand, maybe it will stimulate a serious discussion. Both men, who have fascinating personal stories and are the best candidates their parties had to offer this year, say they want to get politics past the hyperpartisan meanness which turns off so many voters in the center. This could be their chance.
Bill Bradley is a Pajamas Media correspondent. His PajamasXpress blog is New West Notes.