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McCain sets sights on Clinton’s supporters

Republican Sen. John McCain envisions a November victory built in part around attracting a large number of the millions of voters who turned away from Sen. Barack Obama's promise of change during the historic Democratic primary campaign.
Image: John McCain
Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., shakes hands with supporters during after a campaign event in Kenner, La., on Tuesday. McCain has been praising Hillary Clinton and courting women voters who backed her in the Democratic primary.Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Republican Sen. John McCain envisions a November victory built in part around attracting a large number of the millions of voters who turned away from Sen. Barack Obama's promise of change during the historic Democratic primary campaign.

Buoyed by polls showing a quarter or more of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters planning to back McCain, his advisers have already started wooing the white working-class voters and women who made up the bedrock of her coalition. They plan to echo and expand the former first lady's critiques of Obama: that he is out of touch with Middle America and too unseasoned to be president.

"There's a lot of Senator Clinton supporters who would support me because of their belief that Senator Obama does not have the experience or the knowledge or the judgment to address this nation's national security challenges," McCain told reporters Wednesday.

Nonetheless, to succeed, McCain will have to upend firm partisan voting patterns that have held for the past four presidential elections.

In those contests, only about 1 in 10 Democrats cast a ballot for the GOP candidate, according to network exit polls. In the 2006 midterm election, 93 percent of Democrats voted Democratic in their House districts. That party loyalty -- matched by Republicans' fidelity to their party's candidates -- came despite voters' occasional protestations that a nomination defeat would send them scampering.

About those policy differences ...
On the issues, it is unclear how McCain would appeal to Clinton's female or working-class voters. McCain's record is not much like Clinton's, as the Republican repeatedly pointed out during his primary battles. He opposes government-run health care, supports continuing the war in Iraq, wants to extend President Bush's tax cuts and is a committed foe of abortion rights.

His position on the war, in particular, puts him at odds with Clinton on what is a top issue for many Democrats. For months, McCain mocked Clinton's desire to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Obama advisers think the expressions of support for McCain among Clinton voters is a general byproduct of a passionate and sometimes heated primary process that will quickly fade. "We're confident that when voters from all walks of life have a choice between a candidate who last year voted with George Bush 95 percent . . . they will choose change and elect Barack Obama president," said Obama spokesman Hari Sevugan.

McCain strategists predict their candidate will do a better job of siphoning away Democratic votes because of two factors: what they say is Obama's inability to connect to some key parts of the Democratic coalition, and McCain's reputation as a maverick.

Republicans plan to describe Obama as an elitist from the Hyde Park section of Chicago, where liberal professors mingle in an academic world that is alien to most working-class voters. They plan to make sure Clinton's voters do not forget about Obama's comments that working-class people are bitter and cling to their guns and religion as a way of dealing with the economic uncertainty they face.

"The cling-to part about religion and guns is where the McCain campaign is going to hammer home on," said Kevin Madden, a GOP analyst who was the spokesman for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Testing the message
In recent days, the Republican campaign has held focus groups in the Rust Belt and Appalachian states where Obama's messages of hope and change failed to translate into votes, including one session in Pittsburgh -- Obama lost in Pennsylvania to Clinton, and it will almost surely be a critical swing state in the fall. McCain advisers said they found a palpable unease with Obama among those groups.

The point, key Republican advisers said, is that Clinton's voters see more of themselves in McCain than they do in Obama. In recent weeks, McCain advisers have shared data with Republican activists backing up that contention, said one Republican strategist.

McCain's speech Tuesday night contained a direct appeal to Clinton's voters, calling her a "friend" and saying that her presidential campaign inspired his own daughters and "millions of women to believe there is no opportunity in this great country beyond their reach."

In addition, they say they will stress the areas where McCain's positions are different from Bush's. In his speech Tuesday, McCain went out of his way to highlight his belief in global warming, his opposition to Bush's energy bill and his criticisms of the conduct of the war.

"The American people didn't get to know me yesterday," he said. Speaking as much about Clinton's supporters as his own, he added: "They know I have a long record of bipartisan problem-solving. They've seen me put our country before any president -- before any party -- before any special interest -- before my own interest."

McCain advisers believe the polls back up their predictions.

Polls reveal appetite for defection
Over the past three months, Washington Post-ABC News polls showed an average of 25 percent of those backing Clinton in the primaries "defecting" to McCain in a hypothetical match-up with Obama. A new poll from the Pew Research Center conducted just before the final Democratic primaries put the number at 28 percent.

Other data in the new Pew poll may add to the concern among some Democrats. In that survey, the percentage of Clinton supporters holding a positive view of Obama continues to slide: Forty-five percent of them view Obama favorably, down from 58 percent in December, before the voting started.

The Clinton voters most open to switching sides this time in Post-ABC national data are white women, white voters without college degrees, older voters, moderates and those prioritizing experience over change. This is the most fertile territory for McCain to repeat the feat of one of McCain's heroes, Ronald Reagan.

Twenty-six percent of Democrats crossed party lines to vote for Reagan in 1980 after a bruising fight for the Democratic nomination between President Jimmy Carter and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- a battle that lasted all the way to the convention.

But even that number was significantly lower than the threatened crossover from early that year. In a late March 1980 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Democrats who wanted Kennedy to be the party's nominee said they would vote for Reagan if Carter were to get the nod; that is nearly twice the proportion who ended up doing so.

McCain's challenge in converting disappointed Clinton supporters into GOP voters this year hinges on his ability to overcome policy differences and improve his image with those voters. In the Pew poll, most of those who hold favorable views of Clinton view Obama positively and McCain negatively. And it is the anti-McCain view that may ultimately prove a stronger motivator.

Nearly 6 in 10 of those backing Clinton over Obama in the primary said they would support Obama in the fall, with about half of those voters saying they are motivated to do so primarily to vote "against McCain" rather than "for Obama."

Cohen reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.