Uniting the Right Behind McCain

John McCain may look more like the Republican Party's presidential nominee every day, but that doesn't mean the conservative base is on board, yet. Rene Montagne talks with political strategist Matthew Dowd about what McCain must do to unite conservative voters behind his candidacy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We go now for some analysis to Matthew Dowd. He's an independent political strategist, who has in the past advised President Bush, among other Republicans. And he joins us on the line from Phoenix. Good morning.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Independent political strategist): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've just heard Senator McCain trying very hard to appeal to conservative voters, some of whom - we've heard - would rather lose than vote for him. What does he do - do you have to do to win them over?

Mr. DOWD: Well, he's - yesterday was a step towards that - towards John McCain trying to solve some of those fissures that have - that are in that part of the Republican Party. And he's going to have to keep trying to do that and at least begin to learn the language of conservatives. And I think a big part of the problem is his - the language that's he used hasn't always been what the conservatives wanted to hear. And so I think he's going to have to keep moving steps towards that.

The other thing that I think John McCain has going for him is if Hillary Clinton wins the nomination. I know there's a lot of conservatives out there that said they wouldn't vote or would vote for her, but I think she's probably the most unifying force for John McCain out there right now, not himself.

MONTAGNE: Well, is it risky for Senator McCain to spend so much time trying to court conservative voters, because in a match up with either of the two Democrats, he's going to be needing Independents?

Mr. DOWD: It's extremely risky, especially for a candidate like John McCain, whose brand as a politician is totally tied to his independence and maverick and his willingness to throw a flag on either side of the field. It's very risky. And when he got into trouble last summer and last year in his campaign when it was doing well, it was when people thought he'd lost his authenticity. And so he's got to balance the balance between his own sense of independence and his maverickness - I guess - to wanting to encourage and motivate turnout among conservatives. But it's a difficult, difficult balance for him.

MONTAGNE: Now, motivating them to vote is one thing. Is it important for him to motivate conservatives to actually get behind his campaign?

Mr. DOWD: Yes. I mean, obviously there's a huge conservative element out there in the media, talk radio and other shows - cable shows - that has a megaphone attached to it that affects, you know, millions and millions of conservative around the country. Not as much as they like to say, but it does have an affect. So he's going to want people advocating for him that are conservatives.

But at the same time, simultaneously, he's got to be careful because he knows this election is ultimately going to be about Independents and swing voters. But he can't leave the conservatives behind, because in a close election they could put him over the top.

MONTAGNE: Going to a general election - of course, we don't know who the nominee will be for the Democrats - but you mentioned Senator Clinton, how would you say Senator McCain would match up against Senator Obama and then Senator Clinton?

Mr. DOWD: I think if you gave the strategists and the people around John McCain some truth serum and asked them to say who they want to run against, in a minute they'd say Senator Hillary Clinton. They think that she's polarizing. She'd motivate and unite the base of the Republican Party. She's not a generational difference and a change of a figure. She's a bit of a throwback to the past, like to a degree, he is.

Against Senator Obama it's a much more difficult task. It would be a generational campaign, the new versus the older, somebody that had a distinct stand on Iraq versus his stand on Iraq. I think Senator Obama is a much more difficult race and there is not a vitriol from the conservative and the Republican base against Senator Obama. They don't sort of dislike him to their core like they Hillary Clinton.

I think they would much prefer the McCain folks race against Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama, because it's hard to compose a strategy against the new guy like Barack.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. Matthew Dowd is an independent political strategist.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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