STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Once the presidential nominations were settled, the magazine The Economist described John McCain and Barack Obama as, quote, "America at its best." Fair enough. But this fall's competition will still play relentlessly on the weaknesses of both candidates.
A few days ago, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson told us what could give Obama trouble, and this morning she examines Obama's rival.
MARA LIASSON: John McCain's biggest problem is the political landscape. This is simply a lousy year to be a Republican. Although there's been progress in Iraq, the war is still deeply unpopular. So is President Bush. The economy is sluggish. Gasoline is over $4 a gallon.
Then there are vulnerabilities unique to McCain. For starters, he's 71. Democrats are constantly suggesting that is too old. They've said he's lost his bearings, or that he's confused. And McCain jokes about it almost as much. Here is on "Saturday Night Live."
(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and most importantly, the oldness necessary.
(Soundbite of laughter)
LIASSON: In the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, McCain has improved his standing with independents. He is now even with Barack Obama with these key swing voters. But that still worries Republican strategist Vin Weber, because the Republican base has shrunk from the size it was four years ago. This year, Weber says, McCain will need to get even more independents to make up for that shortfall.
Mr. VIN WEBER (Republican Strategist): So, he's got to get beyond the base and pick up a significant number of independents and maybe even some Democrats. And John McCain's always done well with those groups, but he came out of the nominating process probably with a more partisan reputation than he's had throughout his career.
LIASSON: 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.
Mr. HANK SCHEINKOPF (Democratic Strategist): Americans owe a debt of gratitude to John McCain for the fact that he did things that resulted in no benefit to him. He took on big tobacco. He took on what Eisenhower loved to call the military industrial complex, and was correct about campaign finance reform.
LIASSON: But now Scheinkopf and other Democrats point happily to the issues where McCain has moved closer to President Bush, such as the Bush tax cuts. McCain initially opposed them, now he wants to make them permanent.
Mr. SCHEINKOPF: He has confused his brand. The McCain war hero, stand-up-for-independence, be the guy that people want to be with even if they don't like Republicans is not the guy running for office today. There's a difference.
LIASSON: Part of the reason is McCain's long-standing problem with the conservative base of his party. In this week's Washington Post poll, only 13 percent of conservatives say they're enthusiastic about McCain. In contrast, 50 percent of liberals feel that way about Obama. And that's why McCain, months after securing the nomination, is still trying to shore up his conservative base. At the same time, he's reaching out to the center. Take the environment, for example. On Tuesday morning, McCain released an ad reminding voters that he had clashed with President Bush on climate change. On Tuesday afternoon, he called for lifting the federal moratorium on off-shore drilling. Tony Fabrizio is a Republican pollster.
Mr. TONY FABRIZIO (Republican Pollster): So he talks about judges and he makes them 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.
LIASSON: Republican Bill Kristol says McCain hasn't been able to take all his independent positions on issues like global warming and earmarks and torture and weave them into an overarching message that reflects McCain's true political identity.
Mr. BILL KRISTOL (Republican Political Analyst): John McCain was a reformer. That was central to his campaign in 1999 and 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 policy proposals. Reform can be pretty conservative, but it means changing Washington. It's a change election. 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.
LIASSON: Then there's money, says Tony Fabrizio, where McCain lags way behind Obama.
Mr. FABRIZIO: Barack Obama has the ability over this summer to at least out raise McCain and the RNC two to one. 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, and/or a typical Republican.
LIASSON: A typical Republican in a year when that is a big liability. Still, in a gloomy year for the GOP, Fabrizio says McCain is a bright spot.
Mr. FABRIZIO: 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.
LIASSON: Because despite all his vulnerabilities, McCain still polls a whole lot better than his party. Almost in spite of themselves, Republicans appear to have nominated the one man who could make this year's fight against a resurgent Democratic party truly competitive.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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