John McCain’s standing in the presidential race grows stronger each day as he benefits from the increasingly personal and extraordinarily protracted Democratic nomination fight between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Not that he will publicly recognize his advantage.
“I’m glad to be where we are” but “there’s a lot of hard work to do,” the certain GOP nominee told The Associated Press last week, dismissing the notion that he has an upper hand for the general election as the Democratic primary tussle continues.
Even with the Clinton-Obama struggle, polls show either candidate would be in a tight race with McCain, who readily lists a host of tall-order tasks ahead. He must raise money to compete with better-funded Democrats, energize a party that was divided over his candidacy, introduce himself to voters beyond his Vietnam war-hero status, and outline a vision amid a call for change after eight years of President Bush.
A politician for nearly three decades, McCain also has been around long enough to know that his fortunes could shift overnight if the political environment changes. Outside events could pose problems, such as the intense fighting in the Iraqi city of Basra that could undercut his claim that the troop-increase strategy is working and that U.S. troops should not pull out.
Given all that, it’s easy to understand McCain’s cautiousness.
Still, his advisers — and Republicans at large — can hardly contain their glee at the continuing Democratic fight.
“There’s a sense that we have an opportunity to win the national election when we didn’t have a prayer six months ago,” said Terry Holt, a Republican and adviser to Bush’s re-election campaign.
The 2008 headwinds in their favor, Democrats spent much of last year crowing about their record fundraising and enthusiastic party activists, while GOP loyalists lamented bleak prospects in light of Bush’s low marks in polls and the unpopular Iraq war.
Those strengths and weaknesses still hold true.
But now, there’s no question among Republicans and Democrats alike that McCain appears better positioned than he was just weeks ago while Clinton and Obama look more battered every day. While the Republican campaigns without an opponent obstructing him, the two Democrats are engaging in petty spats and confronting credibility-damaging situations — an exaggeration about Bosnia for her, and a former pastor’s incendiary remarks for him.
“It’s becoming alarming. The daily back and forth is diminishing both Democratic candidates,” said Steve Murphy, a Democrat who ran Dick Gephardt’s 2004 campaign. Meanwhile, he added: “McCain has carte blanche for a couple of months.”
At the very least, the Democratic family feud is elevating McCain.
“He’s able to go out there and be the statesman, and that’s valuable,” said Chris Lehane, a Democrat and former aide to President Clinton. He said McCain also benefits because there’s no Democratic nominee to challenge him on his missteps.
For example, McCain opened himself up to criticism recently when he mistakenly said that Iran was allowing al-Qaida fighters into its country to be trained and returned to Iraq. Democratic operatives tried to hammer him on that but several say the lack of a nominee harmed their ability to make a dent.
While overall a boon, the prolonged Democratic race does present challenges for McCain.
It’s dominating the campaign conversation and threatens to eclipse his ability to be heard. It also appears to be generating Democratic enthusiasm that could translate into boosted voter registration and participation, which could bode poorly for Republicans in November.
Nevertheless, McCain is seeking to make the most of his opportunity. He’s using the time to tackle his to-do list and counter the private concerns of some Republicans that his campaign’s transition from the primary to the general election is too slow.
Seeking to project the image of a leader well-known around the globe and well-versed on world issues, McCain traveled overseas in March to meet with world leaders and returned stateside to give a forward-looking address on foreign policy that differed from Bush’s approach.
Last week, he went West in search of money and held nine fundraisers in five days. He brought in $5 million at California events alone but still has significant ground to make up compared with his Democratic rivals. In February, Clinton and Obama raised more than $80 million — and had some $60 million on hand — while McCain raised $11 million and had just $8 million available.
On Monday, McCain was starting a made-for-TV tour of places in the country that shaped his life and giving speeches on how the lessons learned will shape his presidency. The “Service to America” tour is an attempt to flesh out his biography and vision and cut into the Clinton-Obama media deluge.
“Every single day, McCain has an opportunity to present himself to the American public as someone with leadership, experience and statesmanship,” said Kevin Madden, a veteran of Republican Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign. Meanwhile, he said: “Negative attributes being aired every day are becoming ingrained in people’s perceptions about the Democratic candidates and could hurt them in the fall.”
On that point, Democrats painfully agree.
Liz Sidoti covers the presidential race for The Associated Press.