After two boisterous national political conventions and two powerful acceptance speeches, which largely succeeded in rallying the party faithful, Republican and Democratic insiders agree both Barack Obama and John McCain must do a better job of convincing swing voters they have a plan for prescribing steroids for the weak economy.
Obama’s Mile-High fireworks-and-rhetoric finale at the Broncos Stadium in Denver fell short of delivering a point-by-point economic plan voters could get their teeth into to counteract the Democratic nominee’s lack of experience in national affairs. He has been in the Senate only 3 1/2 years.
Before 80,000 people, Obama, 47, pledged that if elected he would seek to extend Bush’s tax cuts for those making under $200,000 a year, propose a new cut of $1,000 for couples who pay Social Security taxes, back a surtax on high earners to make Social Security more solvent, and create a $10 billion fund to help homeowners avoid foreclosure. Obama’s plans allegedly would decrease the national deficit, but details remain sketchy.
McCain, 72, has said he would petition Congress to make President Bush’s tax cuts permanent, cut "waste, fraud and abuse" and earmarks, cut the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, raise the child-tax deduction from $3,500 to $7,000, and try again to eliminate the alternative minimum tax which has thrust thousands of middle-income families into higher tax brackets. Economists say his tax cuts would cost $400 billion. Pledging to reform Washington and "get back to basics," he did not yet spell out how he would pay for them. If not offset, they would raise the national debt to $14 trillion.
But McCain’s "Minneapolis Nice" convention, which became the Sarah Palin Show, watched by 37 million Americans, also left TV viewers, and even some inside the Xcel Energy Center, scratching their heads wondering where the beef was. McCain, whose acceptance speech made clear his main interest is in national security and foreign policy and "fighting for what is right," once famously said he didn’t know as much about the economy as he should. Thursday’s speech indicated he needs more lessons.
Both men and their running mates, Palin, 44-year-old governor of Alaska and a newcomer to national politics, and 65-year-old veteran Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, will be making trip after trip to about a dozen battleground states where loss of jobs and pensions, high rates of mortgage foreclosures, stalemated wages, and soaring costs of health care, food and energy have surpassed the unpopular war in Iraq as key issues for voters.
Some states will barely see the candidates in the general election, which began as the benediction faded in St. Paul and the balloons were scooped up or popped. But other states will see the candidates just about every week until the Nov. 4 election. The so-called battleground states include Ohio, which delivered President Bush his second four-year term in 2004, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire and New Mexico.
While the nation for some time has been split almost down the middle between those who identify themselves as Republicans and those who say they are Democrats, the number of states that could go either way is startlingly small. The era of landslide presidential contests seems over, at least for the foreseeable future.
Wherever Obama and McCain go to try to pick up votes, they will be asked for specifics to fill out their pledge books.
McCain’s selection of Palin, who has five children, including an infant, is certain to mean that the candidates’ families are part of both campaigns. McCain has seven children. The Obamas have two young daughters. Biden has three children. Biden, McCain and Palin all have sons who have or about to serve in Iraq.
Both camps are going after the same voters — women, Hispanics, and working-class families. Obama counted on Biden, a Roman Catholic born in Scranton, Pa., to help on that front. But McCain’s selection of Palin, a tax-cutting social conservative married to a member of the United Steelworkers union, will also go after those voters.
Both conventions set the tone for the coming campaigns. Obama will keep painting McCain as a clone of George Bush, voting with the president 90 percent of the time, insisting that a McCain presidency would mean four more years of a "failed Bush presidency." He said in his acceptance speech: "What does it say about your judgment when you think George Bush has been right more than 90 percent of the time?" About 54 percent of Americans agree the policies of Bush and McCain are about the same.
Arguing he was correct to oppose the war in Iraq from the beginning and that he has new ideas to help the financially strapped middle class, Obama says he offers "the change we need," McCain, a hero of the Vietnam War, denied Bush a night of triumph in St. Paul after eight years in the White House to more credibly present himself as an agent of change — although McCain has been in Washington since 1983.
He will continue to attack Obama, who has been in Washington for 44 months, as lacking in experience. He said, "Again and again, I’ve worked with members of both parties to fix problems that need to be fixed. That’s how I will govern as president. I will reach out my hand to anyone to help me get this country moving again. I have that record and the scars to prove it. Sen. Obama does not," McCain said.
And he will present himself as the man America needs in time of war and terrorism, a reformer who "talks straight."
Although the war in Iraq and the economy are indisputably uppermost on the minds of voters, it is now possible that McCain’s selection of Palin, who has excited voters, could put culture issues back on the table. She is anti-abortion, against same-sex marriage, against gun control, in favor of creationism — all opposed by Obama and Biden.
Both McCain and Obama have serious challenges. Nonpartisan analyst Charlie Cook noted that if McCain got the vote of every registered Republican in America, he would still have to get a majority of the growing ranks of independents and persuade about 15 percent of Democrats to cross over.
But Obama has to keep Democrats from crossing over and persuade the independents that a 47-year-old junior senator from Illinois, who would be the first multiracial president, should be the face of a new generation.
Both campaigns are accusing the other of not "getting it." The candidate who is most persuasive, will get the White House.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered every national political election since 1976. E-mail her at amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)