- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama is doing what Republicans once thought only a presidential candidacy by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton could do - uniting the right and center.

State Republican Party leaders interviewed by The Washington Times said fear of a far-left Obama presidency is warming once-skeptical voters to Sen. John McCain, fueling growing enthusiasm among Republicans that Mr. McCain’s more aggressive campaigning can lead to victory.

“It appears that the more that Obama speaks, the more afraid folks in South Carolina get,” said Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairman Rick Beltram. “We are seeing ‘die-hard’ Democrats tell us that Obama is not their man.

“We are expecting the white Democrats to be fleeing the Democratic ship when November 4 comes around - plus, the Democratic candidate [Bob Conley] that is running against Senator [Lindsey] Graham is also running away from the Democrats, and you can quote me on that,” Mr. Beltram said.

In union-dominated Michigan, a state targeted by both major parties, state Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis said he is seeing signs that independents and Reagan Democrats are moving toward Mr. McCain.

“People who may have been apprehensive about McCain now see this race as potentially winnable,” Mr. Anuzis said.

The latest daily tracking poll by Gallup shows the presidential contest in a statistical dead heat, with the Illinois Democrat three percentage points ahead of the Arizona Republican, 46 percent to 43 percent. National tracking polls of likely voters by Rasmussen, Zogby and others show similar numbers.

During the primaries, Mr. McCain had only 11 supporters on the 168-member Republican National Committee, many of whom never forgave the senator for his lead role in passing campaign finance regulations that they consider an attack on First Amendment rights, and his former opposition to offshore drilling and to President Bush’s tax cuts.

Democrats said the campaign still has far to go, that both candidates will have their ups and downs, and that many voters would not begin focusing in earnest on the presidential election until the conventions.

“Truth be told, the campaign does not really begin in earnest until the conventions are done. You will have a lot of people focusing on the race after the Democratic convention and there will be much more interest [in Mr. Obama] generated among people who are watching it,” said Democratic media strategist Bud Jackson.

Still, Mr. Jackson expressed concern about his party’s upcoming convention because of the strained relations between Mrs. Clinton and the Obama campaign.

“You never know. Bad things can happen at conventions and Democrats need to be careful [that] Hillary doesn’t somehow ultimately cause some sort of acrimony at the convention among her supporters or makes Obama look like a weaker nominee,” Mr. Jackson said.

Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro said his candidate still has plenty of time and opportunity to win voters.

“Many people haven’t made up their mind yet. There are still two conventions and three debates and more than 85 days for us to continue introducing Barack Obama and his vision for change to the American people,” he said.

Republicans credit Mr. McCain’s gains in recent weeks partly to the campaign’s new feisty, hard-hitting ads painting Mr. Obama as a self-absorbed celebrity who ducks meetings with wounded American troops and wants to raise taxes.

“People are getting more enthusiastic about McCain because he is getting more aggressive toward Obama, which makes Republicans and conservatives believe McCain actually can win,” said Jeffrey M. Frederick, the newly elected Republican Party chairman in Virginia.

The state, once reliably Republican, has become a battleground this year.

“The poll shrinkage results more from McCain’s aggressiveness and the more people hear about Obama, the more enthusiastic they get about McCain,” Mr. Frederick said.

In Indiana, another usually Republican state where polls show a tight race, Mr. McCain is winning the hearts of conservatives, helped by polls that suggest Mr. Obama is neither inevitable nor unbeatable.

“It’s the polls - it’s definitely happening,” said state Rep. Jackie Walorski, a Republican from Elkhart. “But it’s not that these hard-core conservatives I talked with at the county fair here are softening their attitudes toward McCain. They’re sliding toward him out of fear of a liberal Obama presidency, and they think McCain can win.”

In Michigan, Mr. Anuzis said, “the idea that McCain all of a sudden could win is generating a degree of excitement and involvement among people, many of whom may not have been very excited or motivated by McCain at the time he locked up the nomination.”

Jay Kenworthy, communications director for the Indiana Republican Party, said his state’s voters are getting to know Mr. Obama and not liking what they see. “We hear people saying, ‘McCain may not have been my guy, but we can’t afford Obama,’” he said.

Mr. Kenworthy said a tax raiser who is weak on national defense - the image Republicans are trying to create for Mr. Obama - is “not a good combination in the Hoosier state.”

Mr. Anuzis agreed: “As a good Republican and even as a good conservative, you’re looking at the alternative with Obama on domestic policy and the Supreme Court.”

In South Carolina, where a large black population is expected to help Mr. Obama in a normally reliable Republican state, Republican Party Chairman Katon Dawson attributes “the poll gains to McCain beginning to draw contrast between not only the candidates but the two parties’ philosophies. I see optimism that we have a chance to possibly to win and optimism builds enthusiasm.”

Mr. Beltram sees Mr. Obama as a drag on Democratic candidates “down-ticket,” giving a glimmer of hope to state and local Republican candidates.

“Although the interest in McCain is only tepid, we are very excited about our prospects for many local elections that we thought 60 days ago would be very difficult,” Mr. Beltram said.

Nevada Republican Party Chairman Sue Lowden said polls are narrowing in Mr. McCain’s favor, although data show more voters are registering Democrat rather than Republican.

“McCain is attracting independents and Hillary Democrats. The more time he spends in Nevada, the more people like him. It’s a small state and easy to reach out to voters,” she said.