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Republican John McCain shakes hands with President George W. Bush after receiving his endorsement at the White House in Washington, D.C., March 5, 2008.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Still from NBC
McCain appeared on Saturday Night Live on May 17, 2008, and poked fun at his age.
Still from NBC
The two presidential candidates are running just about neck and neck, and that is testimony to Arizona Sen. John McCain's strengths in a year when the Republican brand matches up so poorly against the Democrats.
But McCain's biggest problem remains the political landscape: This is simply a lousy year to be a Republican. Although there has been progress in Iraq, the war is still deeply unpopular, as is President George W. Bush's tenure. The economy is sluggish. Gasoline is over $4 a gallon.
Then, there are the vulnerabilities unique to McCain. He is 71 years old, and Democrats are constantly suggesting that is too old. They have said that he has lost his bearings, or that he is confused.
McCain jokes about it almost as much as the Democrats do. On Saturday Night Live, McCain joked, "I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience, and most importantly, the oldness necessary."
Wooing Independent Voters
In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, McCain has improved his standing with independents. He is now even with Obama with these key swing voters. But that is still not good enough for McCain, says Republican strategist Vin Weber.
The GOP lost Congress because it lost independents, and this year that could be an even bigger problem for McCain, because the Republican base is smaller than it was four years ago.
"He's got to get beyond the base and pick up a significant number of independents — and maybe even some Democrats," Weber said. "John McCain's always done well with those groups, but this environment is tough for it. He came out of the nominating process probably with a more partisan reputation than he's had throughout his career."
Primaries often push politicians to the edges of their party, left or right, and McCain has been having trouble restoring his image as an independent straight shooter, says Democratic strategist Hank Scheinkopf.
"Americans owe a debt of gratitude to John McCain for the fact that he did things that resulted in no benefit to him," he said. "He took on Big Tobacco. He took on what Eisenhower loved to call the military-industrial complex."
But now Scheinkopf and other Democrats point happily to the issues on which McCain has moved closer to President Bush. He initially opposed the Bush tax cuts, but now he wants to make them permanent. He still opposes drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but this week, he reversed his opposition to a federal ban on offshore drilling.
"He has confused his brand," Scheinkopf said. "The McCain war hero, stand-up-for-independence [kind of guy] is the guy that people want to be with."
Republican Base vs. Swing Voters
In this week's Washington Post poll, only 13 percent of conservatives said they are enthusiastic about McCain. Fifty percent of liberals feel that way about Obama, and that's why McCain is still — months after securing the nomination — trying to shore up his base, at the same time he's reaching out to the center.
Tony Fabrizio is a Republican pollster. "He talks about judges, and he makes [conservatives] happy for the day. Then he turns around and talks about global warming. So, it's been a give-and-take type of thing with the right," he said.
Republican Bill Kristol says McCain has not been able to take all his independent positions on issues such as global warming, earmarks and torture and weave them into an overarching message that reflects his true political identity.
"McCain was a reformer," Kristol said. "That was central to his campaign in 2000. What's happened to the reform agenda? You don't hear the word reform that much. You don't see a coherent set of conservative reform political proposals."
"It's a change election," he added. "McCain, a lot of people are worried and I'm worried, is letting Obama be the change candidate, and he seems to be the anti-change candidate."
Then, there's money, says Fabrizio, where McCain lags way behind Obama.
"Barack Obama has the ability over this summer to at least outraise McCain and the RNC 2 to 1," Fabrizio said. "That's a lot of money to bring to bear on somebody else's image. That money is all going to go to trying to make John McCain either the third term of George W. Bush or a typical Republican."
This year, characterizing a candidate as "a typical Republican" is a big liability. Still, in a gloomy year for the GOP, Fabrizio says McCain is a bright spot. "Having said all of that, if John McCain runs the right type of race, he can still be victorious while Republicans suffer significant losses in the House and Senate," he said.
Despite all his vulnerabilities, McCain still polls better than most of his party. Almost in spite of themselves, Republicans appear to have nominated the one man who can make this year's fight against a resurgent Democratic Party truly competitive.