Video: Smart move to the middle?

updated 7/5/2008 1:31:11 PM ET 2008-07-05T17:31:11

U.S. presidential candidates historically steer to the political middle once nominated, but Democrat Barack Obama's unabashed appeal to centrist American voters has further opened the door to Republican claims his message of change only applies to the positions he has taken in the past.

Perhaps most damaging was Thursday's statement in North Dakota, where he said he would reassess his stand on the Iraq war after he visits the front later this summer for briefings from American military commanders. Republicans tried to play that as an expedient political flip flop — a signal Obama was moving away from his vow to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months of taking office, a defining issue of his campaign.

Obama quickly said that wasn't the case but the Republicans rushed in with a critical broadside.

"There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the national Republican Party. "Obama's Iraq problem undermines the central premise of his candidacy and shows him to be a typical politician."

But that's not all. Obama has spoken out for the death penalty and against strict gun control. He's backed new rules allowing government eavesdropping on terrorism suspects and called for giving more government money to religious groups that tackle social ills.

Cynical sprint or smart strategy?
As with the war, critics on the right accuse Obama of adopting those positions in a cynical sprint to the political center — even a bid to plant his flag in territory typically held by Republicans.

But supporters say the Illinois senator is tacking smartly centerward, driven on a course set by his fundamentally moderate political philosophy.

Others see a bit of both at work since Hillary Rodham Clinton suspended her campaign last month when Obama racked up the delegates need for nomination.

While Republican John McCain, too, is shifting to the center, Obama's recent tactics — the issues he's chosen to centerpiece and what he's said about them — stand in far greater contrast.

It's a bit of a tightrope walk, but Obama appears to be relying on a safety net — increasingly solid Democratic Party support coupled with a significant national distaste for the Republican administration of President Bush.

Hasn't broken away
Nevertheless, Obama has been unable to break away from McCain.

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The latest Gallup Tracking Poll shows the Democrat ahead by only four percentage points, 47-43, perhaps reflecting voter confusion or refusal to wholeheartedly back him because his positions appear in flux.

"The most important thing in politics is your brand," says Matthew Dowd, a former Bush strategist. "Obama's brand is that he will be a different kind of politician. It's a brand he's built up over that past year and a half. But he's dented that brand in recent days."

That's certainly been the case with the left wing of the Democratic Party, particularly over the candidate's change of heart over punishing telecom companies that spied on Americans' phone and internet communications for the Bush administration.

Obama initially said that he would block a reauthorization of the Patriot Act, the bundle of anti-terrorism measures first passed by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks, if it forbade prosecution of those communications companies.

But he's changed course even though renewal of the Patriot Act still blocks legal recourse against the telecoms. The new measure, he has said, is in the overall interests of national security.

"Not to put words in his mouth, but while it was not perfect, perfect can't be the enemy of the good," said Matt Bennett, a policy analyst for Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.

"Moderate voters are the king-makers of American politics," Bennett says, and "at the core of his political philosophy, Obama is a moderate soul."

Statements on the issues
But questions remain about where Obama stands on issues important to Democrats and many independents, given what he's been saying of late:

  • Criticism of the Supreme Court for striking down a state law that called for execution of child rapists.
  • Equivocal support for the high court's reversal of the District of Columbia ban on hand guns.
  • A promise of more federal dollars to what Bush calls "faith-based" programs run by churches and other religious groups.
  • Readiness to re-examine his policy on the Iraq war, opposition to which has been a core issue in his campaign.

Obama also said "mental distress" should not count as a health exception that would permit a late-term abortion, saying "it has to be a serious physical issue," addressing a matter considered crucial to abortion rights activists.

A recent AP-Yahoo News poll finds that 15 percent of those surveyed call themselves moderates who are not solidly supporting a candidate. About 39 percent of voters called themselves Democratic, 29 percent Republican, and 32 percent independent in the June 13-23 survey, part of an ongoing study tracking opinions of the same group of people over the election cycle.

The Democratic edge suggests Obama may be less dependent on votes in the middle than his opponent, but Obama's courting of the political center is noteworthy, nevertheless.

And it could be risky, given that much of Obama's new centrist message doesn't flow naturally from political expectations he set while battling Clinton for the Democratic nomination. While his base may hold, there is the chance Obama's dramatic bid for centrist voters could confuse and raise doubts among the undecided instead of comforting them.

"If I were them (the Obama campaign) I would wake up every morning and ask myself how I can stay true to my brand as a politician who would change the way Washington works," said Dowd, the former Bush strategist.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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