- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The West may be won this year by one of its own. The appeal of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin with ranchers, hunters and gun owners has lifted the hopes of McCain campaign officials, who say Sen. Barack Obama’s plan of carrying several Western states this November have been derailed by the hockey-mom-turned-Alaska-governor.

Western Democrats acknowledge that Mrs. Palin made a strong impression with her vice-presidential nomination acceptance speech, but they say Sen. John McCain’s running mate will have a negligible impact in Western battleground states such as Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico.

“From what I’ve heard from people here, there is a general impression she was well-received because of her speech, but looking at the bigger picture, I don’t think she will have any effect on the race in Montana,” said state Democratic Chairman Dennis McDonald.

“The reason is that Senator Obama has been here five times since this spring and summer, the last time nine days ago, and has opened up 16 campaign offices statewide. McCain has not been here in eight years and has no presence in the state,” he said.

Actually, the Republican Party has five campaign offices in the state, which President Bush carried by a 20-point margin in 2004, although it is true that the Republican nominee has not set foot in the state since 2000.

However, McCain campaign officials said Monday that the Arizona senator and Mrs. Palin are one of the strongest Western tickets in memory and that both exude Western cultural and social values that are alien to the Democratic ticket from Chicago and Delaware.

McCain campaign strategists are distributing remarks by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, who told the New York Times in April that “in Montana, we like our guns. We like big guns. We like little guns. We like shotguns. We like pistols. Most of us own two or three guns. Gun control is hitting what you shoot at.”

When asked later that month why he thought neither Mr. Obama nor primary challenger Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton could win Montana, Mr. Schweitzer replied, “Guns.”

“Governor Palin is obviously about as much a Westerner as you can be with her background as a hunter, fisherman. Both geographically and personally, she has a strong connection to the West. She understands how they live, the issues they care about, and we think she’s got strong appeal out there,” said Brian Rogers, Mr. McCain’s campaign press secretary.

“We haven’t seen a ticket as strong from the West and as strong on the issues that Western folks care about,” he said, adding that the McCain-Palin campaign planned to attack Mr. Obama aggressively for his advocacy of gun control.

“He can’t hide from his gun-grabbing record. We are going to make that contrast clear. Palin adds something to that argument, having a long history of support for Second Amendment rights, and identifies with the culture of hunters and the outdoors, probably more than any other nominee in a long time,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mrs. Palin makes no secret that she is a lifelong National Rifle Association member, and the NRA will be promoting her and Mr. McCain’s candidacy this fall, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said Monday.

“Palin helps to center all those feelings among voters who want their Second Amendment freedoms protected from Washington politicians. Her candidacy is making a big difference in terms of enthusiasm and activism and votes for the ticket,” Mr. LaPierre said.

Nevertheless, Democrats intend to make inroads into the West’s Republican territory in the mountain and Plains states that Mr. Bush swept from the Canadian border to the Rio Grande in his 2004 re-election bid.

Bolstering that aim is the fact that several Western states being targeted by the Obama-Biden campaign have been trending Democratic in their state elections in recent years and polls show the race is surprisingly close in a number of them.

In Montana, for example, Democrats control the governorship, both U.S. Senate seats, four of the five statewide offices and the state Senate and are one seat shy of taking over the state House. Ranchers and farmers are complaining about punishing gas prices that are more than $4 a gallon and Mr. McCain’s opposition to big-spending farm bills that are popular with the state’s farmers.

Still, Ronald Reagan carried the state twice, Bill Clinton carried it in 1992, but not in 1996, and Mr. Bush carried it twice by large margins. According to the Real Clear Politics Web site, which tracks all of the state polls, Mr. McCain leads his rival by an average of 5.3 points there.

In North Dakota, Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and its one House seat, though not the governor’s office. Democrats have not lost a race for Congress since 1980. Yet Mr. Bush carried the state by a 27 percent margin last time.

But Democratic state Chairman David Strauss says, “Things are changing dramatically here. Voters by three to one say things are moving in the wrong direction. When you look at gas prices, even taxes in places like this, people trust the Democrats more to handle these things than the Republicans.”

He dismisses Mrs. Palin’s influence on the ticket as irrelevant in modern presidential politics.

“The choice of Palin is something people will consider in making their judgments about the presidential election, but I think people vote for president, not for vice president,” he said, noting that Mr. Obama “has been here three times. McCain has not been here.”

State polls show the race in a dead heat.

In New Mexico, a swing state that Democrats carried in 2000 but lost narrowly in 2004, where Mr. McCain and Mrs. Palin campaigned Sunday, the race remains typically close once more. Polls show Mr. Obama with a 4.3-point edge.

Similarly, both Colorado and Nevada are in a statistical tie, with one point or less separating the two candidates.

Meantime, despite Mrs. Palin’s acknowledged appeal in the West, the McCain campaign expects to use her more in pivotal Midwestern states such as Ohio, Michigan and Missouri - more populated states that deliver a larger electoral vote. An ABC News poll taken after her nomination last week at the Republican National Convention showed she was viewed favorably by 47 percent of women and 54 percent of men.

Nationally, the Gallup Poll reported Monday that Mr. Obama’s bounce in the polls after his convention “has now disappeared totally” and that the McCain-Palin ticket “sits on a four-point advantage among registered voters” in a Friday-through-Sunday survey.

“That’s the largest advantage for McCain in either USA Today/Gallup Polls or Gallup Poll Daily tracking since May,” the polling organization said.

Western Republicans Monday said they were also picking up signals of a swing toward Mr. McCain and think Gallup’s national polling numbers will soon be reflected in their state polls when they are conducted later this month.

“If it is trending McCain’s way nationally, it is going to be trending McCain’s way in Montana because at the end of the day, Montana is a center-right state,” said Republican state Chairman Erik Iverson.

An internal Republican poll showed Mr. McCain leading in Mr. Iverson’s state by four points (50 percent to 46 percent) in early August. “I think by the end of the day, McCain wins Montana by ten points, not as high as Bush’s vote, but it’s going to be a comfortable margin,” Mr. Iverson said.