ST. PAUL, Minn. – John McCain intends to return to his maverick roots in the suddenly-here home stretch of the general election, portraying himself and his unconventional running mate as the real reformers and trying to steal the mantle of change from Barack Obama.
His turbulent convention now over and Labor Day already past, McCain’s path to victory in November is found in setting himself apart from his own deeply unpopular party and president in an election where voters are aching for a departure from the status quo, aides say.
It’s a task, like many others before them, that McCain intimates believe has been made considerably easier with his selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.
By picking an across-the-board conservative, McCain aides argue, they’ve allayed long-festering fears about the unpredictable Arizona senator among the conservative core of the party and empowered him to move away from the party brand without unduly angering GOP stalwarts.
“The base will now stay solid,” said a top McCain aide. “The VP choice helps ensure that.”
Added another: “Gov. Palin has given us an opportunity to unify and energize the base like we never had before. Calls are pouring in. And who does the work on the ground? Volunteers. And who are those volunteers? Hard-core conservatives.”
In addition to the millions Palin has helped raise for the campaign already, an aide said, it had five times as many volunteers help out last weekend as it usually has pitching in.
The much-ballyhood enthusiasm gap between the two parties, they believe, has finally been closed.
Further, McCain’s camp believes Palin helps reinforce a key strength that McCain intends to highlight in the coming 60 days.
“You can’t suggest that Barack Obama and Joe Biden have better reform credentials than John McCain and Sarah Palin,” said a McCain staffer.
Talking up McCain’s many battles in Washington over the years and spotlighting Palin’s challenge to what one aide called a corrupt “old boys’ club” in Alaska, Republicans intend to frame the ticket as the senior and junior partners on a mission to overturn business as usual.
“They’ll be the reforming, crusading duo who are uniquely suited to shake up Washington,” promised a top aide.
But even as Republicans now have something to get excited about instead of just somebody to rally against, McCain aides still want to keep the focus on Barack Obama.
All the attention the Illinois senator has received, one said, has made him take on the role of incumbent.
Yet, even when it comes to their opponent, McCain’s campaign feels like it has gotten a boost with the addition of Palin, citing the comparisons between her background and that of the man atop the Democratic ticket.
“The mere fact that that conversation is taking place is damaging to Obama,” an aide said.
And, though they won’t state it explicitly, McCain’s campaign believes that Palin can help them among the much sought-after female vote, an area where McCain has not been as strong as needed in polls.
“There is something powerful that she is tapping into with women,” claimed an aide.
But as much as McCain’s campaign believes it is boosted by the addition of Palin, Obama aides are still confident that the third party who will ultimately have the most impact is not the bright new star who spoke here for nearly 40 minutes this week but the unpopular old face of the party who spoke for less than 10 minutes via satellite.
“We’re going to make sure voters understand that John McCain is out of touch, he doesn’t get it, and is offering just more of the same of George Bush’s failed policies,” said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor. “He can call himself a reformer, but he voted with President Bush 90 percent of the time, and voters aren’t about to take a 10 percent chance on change. He can claim his running mate is a reformer, but she was for the 'Bridge to Nowhere' before she was against it. Gov. Palin said she was against earmarks, but she got more earmarks per person than any other state in the country. That’s not change.”
The newly nominated GOP ticket will argue otherwise with joint stops beginning this weekend in Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and New Mexico.
Next week, though, Palin will likely return to Alaska to get her gubernatorial and personal affairs in order, including seeing her Army son off to Iraq.
A broader rollout will come after that, aides promise, including media interviews.
And while McCain’s campaign is planning on some joint ticket appearances, they’ll likely hew to the traditional path of dividing to conquer.
“The vice presidential candidate has to raise money for the party,” noted an aide, and Palin will have a coast-to-coast slate of receptions, lunches and dinners to tend to between now and November.
All told, Palin will hold at least 17 fundraisers in 10 states, according to an e-mail to McCain donors that was sent last week before her selection was announced.
Beyond the money chase, McCain aides will deploy Palin in a mix of Rust Belt and interior West states. They believe she can be helpful with moderate, swing voters, as well as help ensure turnout from the party’s conservatives who previously have been less than enthralled with McCain.
One top aide said he was most hopeful that Palin could lend a hand with those “soft” Republicans in affluent suburbs who may have fallen away from the party in the Bush years.
“Those were places where Obama had significant advantages,” said the aide, citing the historically GOP-friendly silk stocking areas around Detroit, Philadelphia and the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C.
But these same areas also include many women who may be sympathetic to Republican fiscal policies but blanch at the party’s opposition to abortion rights.
“Sarah Palin is not going to get us single-issue, pro-choice voters,” acknowledges a McCain aide. “But how much money do Democrats want to spend in the Philadelphia media market painting her as out of the mainstream?”
Examining the electoral map, McCain strategists feel confident about a trio of red states that have been highly competitive in recent years: Missouri, Ohio and Florida.
As for blue targets, Michigan and Pennsylvania are near the top of the list, and the campaign believes Obama is seeking to broaden the map to prepare backstops in case his blue-collar deficiencies in these two states become fatal.
“All those other states they are spending money in are part of an equation over ‘what if we lose Michigan and Pennsylvania,’” said a top strategist, alluding to Obama’s efforts in places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Montana.
McCain aides concede that two hotly contested red states from 2004 could go Obama’s way, however. Iowa, because of McCain’s opposition to ethanol subsidies and his minimal caucus efforts there, and New Mexico, because of a Democratic registration advantage and a worse political climate, are the GOP’s two most vulnerable states.