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McCain's missed opportunities

Voters will weigh many factors this November, but surely the GOP ticket could have spent more time addressing their economic fears.
/ Source: National Journal

The CW suggests that only racism — or an unexpected event — can stop Barack Obama from winning. Yet that simplistic conclusion ignores the very real conflicts and cross-pressures voters are struggling with in this campaign.

Obviously, Obama's race, his foreign-sounding name and his "exotic" childhood spent in Hawaii and Indonesia are deal-breakers for some white voters. Yet we also know that a Democratic nominee hasn't won a majority of the white vote since 1964, and that the two parties have invested a great deal of effort in keeping the "red/blue" divide alive and well. So to assume these voters are going to simply alter long-held voting behavior is a big deal. The idea that just because the economy's in the tank these folks should ditch the party they've aligned with for years is missing the fundamental reason many of these voters moved to the GOP in the first place. They don't trust that Democrats hold the same value system they do. This was true long before "bitterness" and Jeremiah Wright.

That so many white voters remain undecided has, in turn, renewed talk about the "Bradley effect," where whites tell pollsters they'll vote for the black candidate or that they are undecided but then support the white candidate on Election Day. However many of these voters are out there, let's not forget that many of them are really and truly struggling with a level of political cross-pressure unlike any they've experienced before. Cultural issues have been the yardstick by which they've measured candidates, but for all of Obama's post-partisan talk, he's out of step with them on many of those issues. That they are even willing to sit with these discomforting and conflicting emotions instead of simply defaulting to John McCain is a victory for Obama.

It's also clear that whatever opportunity Sarah Palin had to appeal to these white voters — especially women — has been lost. Unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was already established as a "polarizing figure," Palin came in as a blank slate. She started out with the benefit of voters' doubt and had the chance to shape herself to fit the electorate. Yet instead of emphasizing her common bond with other hockey moms, she's been relegated to pit bull. And it's not helping her or McCain. The longer she's been on the attack, the greater the gap has grown in Obama's favor among women. Her disapproval ratings have gone up and her approval ratings have gone down.

When almost 70 percent of voters say the economy is their No. 1 issue, you'd better be talking about the economy. Just imagine if, instead of talking about the "terrorists" Obama's "palling" around with, Palin had gone out to small towns across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin to empathize with women about the economic anxiety gripping their lives. It may not have been enough to win the election, but it would be a step in the right direction — or at least in the same direction as voters.

The same goes for McCain, who's visibly struggling to decide how he wants this campaign to end. Will it be as the "maverick" — the one who would rather risk an election than risk his integrity? Or will it be by running on William Ayers and innuendo? His newest stump speech, unveiled Monday in Norfolk, Va., suggests he'll be leaning toward the former. Gone are the references to Obama's character, replaced instead by attacks on Obama's desire for higher taxes. Mostly, however, it sounds like a rallying cry to a dispirited base that he's been knocked down before only to surprise everyone at the end and win it all.

Even so, this latest change in strategy is likely to feed into voter anxiety at a time when they really want a "soother in chief." That McCain seems uncomfortable figuring out what role he wants to play is taking a toll on his standing with voters, too. On Saturday, the Diageo/Hotline poll showed McCain with his smallest lead ever among voters who feel that he's more prepared to lead the nation: 46 percent picked McCain as more prepared, while 43 percent chose Obama. A week ago, McCain led 49-41. Crisis was supposed to be McCain's greatest asset. Instead, his reaction to the financial crisis has served to undermine his presidential bona fides.

Not that long ago, the assumption was that this election was going to be a referendum on Obama. Now, it's become a referendum on McCain — and not in the way he'd want it to be.