Coming off a bumpy convention that was postponed by a hurricane and set unpleasantly abuzz by a teen pregnancy, Republican presidential nominee John McCain now faces the task of convincing voters that his rock-solid political experience trumps Democrat Barack Obama’s rock-star atmospherics.
"McCain’s not going to compete with Obama on eloquence. He’s not even going to try," said Newt Gingrich, the former House Speaker. "McCain is going to compete on common sense, on being Harry Truman to Obama’s Tom Dewey."
Whether that posture as the Republican Truman will sell to voters could depend on his ability to negotiate the transition from maverick outsider to standard bearer of an incumbent party in which he is sometimes viewed as the house renegade.
With a pair of speeches — running mate Sarah Palin’s Wednesday night and McCain’s Thursday night — the candidate signaled that he is ready to embrace the conservative wing of his party and its rhetoric. As such, the spontaneity that long allowed McCain to charm small gatherings is likely to give way to a more scripted, strategically crafted approach.
McCain, who once referred to the press as his constituency, has largely broken off the free-wheeling media gaggles at which he dispensed his plain talk, partly because the gaggle has turned into a mob and partly to keep a sometimes overly discursive candidate on message. Handlers spent a bad week dealing with the backlash on a simple McCain goof: Asked how many houses he owned, the candidate, married to a wealthy heiress, was unable to answer.
"After you’re the presidential nominee, the world changes," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., himself a former presidential hopeful, in 1996. "As much as possible he needs to still find a way to be himself. I know in ’96 they shut Bob Dole up and one of Bob Dole’s endearing characteristics was his sense of humor and without that sense of humor he wasn’t the Bob Dole everyone knew."
Faced with less informality and the need to keep his words guarded, McCain now needs to stress the more prosaic specifics of governance, a task in which his supporters think he can surpass Obama, but which are often hard to turn into voter excitement.
"He needs to turn the corner now and really relate to the American people," said former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. "He needs to get our fiscal house in order … And then, how he’s going to reach out and help the American family — I think those are really the issues that people want to see."
So far, independent observers worry that McCain’s campaign has lacked focus, with his stands on various issues largely known, but still incoherent in the sense of what policy directions a McCain presidency would take.
"It’s like the sum of the parts don’t give us the whole," said G. Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
While moving to define himself, McCain must perform a task faced by virtually every candidate for office in a media-driven age, say party activists: Define his opponent as well.
"All we have to say is … they’re the left," said Gingrich, whose confrontational partisanship helped turn the House Republican in 1994, a political watershed for his party. "We’re for lower taxes, they’re for higher taxes. We’re for conservative judges, they’re for liberal judges. Not much harsh about it."
He predicted that a clearer definition of Obama as a liberal would likely give the McCain-Palin ticket a majority of moderate, blue-collar Clinton voters in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia. Republican leaders here spent much of the week touting Obama as the single most liberal senator in Washington.
But while defining Obama might be part of the equation, the collateral task for McCain is to also brand himself as a comfortably familiar political entity, according to John Brabender, a Pittsburgh consultant who has run numerous GOP campaigns.
McCain "doesn’t have to move voters into the unfavorable category, he just has to move them into the questionable category where they go into the voting booth feeling Obama doesn’t have the experience needed for the presidency," Brabender said.
(E-mail Dennis Roddy at droddy(at)post-gazette.com.)