- The Washington Times - Monday, June 16, 2008

Sen. John McCain‘s reputation as a maverick who regularly bucks the conservative wing of his party will be a formidable obstacle for Sen. Barack Obama as he seeks to persuade moderates to vote for him in November.

Once dubbed the Democrats’ favorite Republican - and the recipient of a gushing endorsement by the liberal New York Times during this year’s primary campaign - Mr. McCain’s bigger-than-life image as a middle-of-the-road politician is a proven draw of moderates and independents, who are in the position to decide which candidate wins the White House.

See related story: Obama camp: Win without Ohio, Fla.?

“The Republicans stumbled into the best nominee they could have gotten,” said Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “The Republican brand is in the toilet and they found the one guy who doesn’t fit the Republican brand. I think his ‘maverick’ status is a huge help to him. If he was a typical Republican, given how people feel about generic Republicans right now, we would win in a walk,” she said.

Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh agreed, saying, “Much of John McCain’s maverick image was largely defined eight years ago when he ran against Bush and lost.

“There is a premium on defining yourself for the voters before your opponent does it for you. For many voters in the country and especially in a state like New Hampshire, John McCain’s maverick image is alive and well. That is going to be a challenge for the Obama campaign.”

Although conservatives bristle about Mr. McCain’s proclivity to cross party lines to vote with Democrats, a glance at his voting record over 25 years in the Senate portrays a solid Republican. For instance, he voted for every item on the Republicans’ Contract With America, the document penned by conservatives in 1994 that called for shrinking the federal government, cutting taxes and reforming welfare.

The senator from Arizona, a staunch pro-lifer, has an American Conservative Union rating of 82, not a top-rated conservative but certainly a solid member. As Mr. Obama regularly points out, Mr. McCain voted in line with President Bush’s wishes 95 percent of the time in 2007, and 100 percent of the time so far this year.

But Mr. McCain also has bucked his party often, and on several high-profile issues. He attached his name to McCain-Feingold, a campaign-finance reform bill co-authored by Sen. Russ Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, that Republicans opposed. He also joined forces with a liberal leader, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, via the McCain-Kennedy bill to overhaul immigration. Many Republicans opposed the bill.

Still, some say those against-the-grain transgressions could help more than harm Mr. McCain.

“He certainly is the best candidate Republicans could have selected to bring in independents, and very likely Reagan Democrats and blue-collar workers,” said James Thurber, a political scientist at American University. “Obama has to focus on those populations. … The maverick side makes it difficult for Obama.”

Mr. McCain’s independent streak made him popular with the media in 2000, when he ran against the conservatives’ choice, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. “Democrats and the media loved the guy whenever he took shots at Bush’s extreme policies,” said Democratic strategist Bud Jackson. “It made for interesting copy and for fun barroom conversation.”

Even reporters on the Straight Talk Express, Mr. McCain’s campaign bus, began to swoon at his frank interview style, with ABC political reporter Linda Douglass saying: “He’s clearly winning us all over, and we have to be careful about that.” (The reporter recently joined the Obama campaign as a strategist and spokeswoman.)

Although Mr. McCain’s appeal faded in that campaign, he has returned this cycle with much of his maverick image intact. That reputation will be crucial to his ability to draw independent and moderate voters, which some election analysts say makes up nearly a third of the electorate.

The Michigan electorate, for example, is split 40 percent to 40 percent between the two parties, with 20 percent or so calling themselves independents, said state pollster Ed Sarpolus. “Without independents, neither party can win the state. If John McCain doesn’t convince independents to come on over, he can’t beat Barack Obama here,” he said.

In a swing state such as New Hampshire, independents will again be the margin, and an April poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed Mr. McCain beating Mr. Obama among independents 61 percent to 27 percent.

Mr. McCain makes clear he will target the middle. On Saturday, he is scheduled to participate in a virtual town hall with Democrats and independents. “Many town hall participants are expected to be former supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign,” his campaign said.

“The American people know I have a long record of bipartisan problem solving,” Mr. McCain said. “They’ve seen me put our country before any president, before any party, before any special interest - and before my own interest.”

In order to lock down his maverick status and draw independents, Mr. McCain must continue to define himself as an anti-Bush candidate as he seeks to disprove charges by Mr. Obama that he represents a third Bush term. Mr. McCain is already doing that, airing his differences with Mr. Bush over the war, climate change, government spending and the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

That may not work with moderates and independents, Mr. Jackson said.

“John McCain’s need to build and repair ties to the Republican’s more extreme right-wing portion of the base has seriously undercut his maverick image. Particularly damaging to his maverick image has been his embrace of the war and Bush’s failed economic policies, which are the two most important issues of this campaign,” he said.

That tack may also not work with conservatives, who may not forgive his transgressions. Mr. Bush twice secured the conservative base before drawing just enough independents to win the presidency. Mr. McCain, in contrast with Mr. Obama, lags with his base, which means he will have to work twice as hard to win.

“This ‘maverick’ label is killing him with the Republican base,” said Mrs. Chadderdon, the Democratic strategist. “That is a big part of why they dislike and distrust him. From their perspective, passing legislation with Kennedy and Feingold … is tantamount to heresy. So while he is a hero to some independents, he has real problems with the right.”

Mr. McCain has been working his base of late, hitting issues dear to the hearts of conservatives: smaller government, lower taxes, open trade, staying the course in Iraq until victory is achieved. He could still hold the middle as Mr. Obama is forced to convince liberals that they can trust him.

“In the last two weeks, McCain has successfully framed this race as a classic conservative GOP versus a liberal Democrat,” Republican strategist Scott Reed said. “The stage is now set and Republicans across the country are feeling optimistic. Obama needs to put a lot of new meat on his political bones to be a mainstream candidate and win in the fall. Obama will be tugged to the left as he tries to be the agent of change.”

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide