If the election were today, Democrats would sweep local, state and national offices — and John McCain would be the nation’s 44th president.
Polls are showing a remarkable state of affairs. There is strong alarm about what is going on in Washington, and Republicans get the blame. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll by Republican pollster Neil Newhouse and Democratic pollster Peter Hart, voters favor Democrats by a 44 percent to 32 percent margin. But there is strong and growing admiration for McCain; a majority of voters identify with his “values.”
Yes, four out of ten voters are distressed that Republican McCain’s views are too much like those of President Bush, whom eight out of ten voters think has handled the economy poorly. A majority doesn’t like McCain’s position that the war in Iraq must continue.
But voters also question Hillary Clinton’s honesty and say they are concerned she seems to have changed her mind often. Many others wonder if Barack Obama is “out of touch” with Americans and are vastly aghast at his long ties with the outspoken Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
One of my brothers said to me the other day while I was in Ohio, “You people in Washington have no idea how much this thing with Wright is resonating out in the rest of the country.”
Yet, back in Washington, that’s just about all I hear people talking about when they talk politics (which is most of the time).
Did Obama’s new denunciation of Wright’s “rants” stop the candidate’s decline in the polls?
Did he wait too long after his speech on racial healing to make clear to a majority of Americans that he finds his former pastor’s remarks out of line? Obama clearly is angry with Wright now, but is it too late?
When Obama originally said he could not disown the preacher who married him to Michelle and baptized his children, did that blur the lines of his disagreements with Wright?
Will voters still be angry over this in the autumn, if Obama were to win the nomination? Will voters accept Obama’s dismissal of Wright as over the top because of his diatribes making such charges as insisting AIDS is a government plot?
The 300 undecided Democratic “super delegates,” those 800 party big wigs who get to vote and who probably will decide the nomination, are closely watching Obama’s handling of the Wright issue and also how he responds to charges he is too “elitist” before they decide.
Clearly, the bloom is off all three roses at the moment. But McCain is holding his own, despite the clear anger against Republicans nationwide, for three reasons. He is a true war hero; a prisoner in Vietnam for five years, his patriotism is not in question. His long experience in Washington, especially his reputation as a “maverick,” makes him a known quantity. The two Democrats are so wrapped up in attacking each other that he is skipping around the country without getting the scrutiny he’ll definitely get in the fall.
McCain must tell his personal story to voters, convince them he’s not too old or too conservative to be president, has solutions for a bad economy and distance himself from Bush. Right now, by a margin of 54 percent to 35 percent, voters say they identify with McCain’s values and background, according to the Newhouse/Hart poll.
Only November will tell if McCain’s task is easier than for Clinton to convince voters she’s honest and steadfast and that her husband won’t hog the limelight or for Obama to convince voters his past association with Wright doesn’t matter, that he is experienced enough for the White House and that he is not “out of touch.”
In this roller coaster election year, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen. Based on what they’re guessing now, 50 percent of the people will be proved right, and 50 percent will be proved wrong.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)