Can Obama Close the Deal? McCain May Yet Have a Say

by Stuart Rothenberg July 28, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

The next 15 weeks in the 2008 presidential race will be primarily about whether American voters are comfortable with Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the Oval Office. But that doesn’t let presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) off the hook completely. His message and positioning will help determine whether he will remain a credible alternative to Obama.

“If people get comfortable with Obama, he will win. If they don’t, then McCain might win,” one veteran Republican campaign strategist told me recently.

Right now, Obama has not yet closed the deal with a whole lot of voters who want change. Whether it’s because of his lack of experience, controversial friends or race, these voters are not yet comfortable with the Illinois Democrat leading the nation.

For many of these undecided voters, who will be crucial in November, McCain is now a safer pick — the experienced, old white guy who surely is ready to be president. It’s not that these voters are enthusiastic about the Arizona Republican. It’s that they can easily see him in the office and doing the job.

Of course, there is some irony here, since McCain is known for his flammable temper and a shoot-from-the-hip style that has some veteran Republicans wondering what kind of president he’d be. But for some voters, McCain looks like a safe alternative.

So it is Obama, not McCain, who is the master of his own destiny. It’s up to him to make those undecided voters comfortable with who he is and what kind of president — what kind of commander in chief — he would be. If he succeeds in doing so over the next three months, he is likely to win the White House.

But while the outcome of the presidential contest turns primarily on the public’s evaluation of Obama, McCain is not irrelevant in the electoral equation. McCain’s campaign can both define the Arizona Senator and establish an important contrast between the candidates that makes it harder for Obama to win over undecided voters. But recently, the Republican hasn’t been successful in doing so.

McCain has spent so much time over the past few months establishing his own conservative Republican credentials that he has allowed his “maverick” image to erode. Instead, he has come awfully close to sounding like just another Republican. And that’s the last thing in the world that he can afford to do, since it makes things easier for Obama.

We all know that “change” is the single most important theme this cycle, even if some voters continue to look for experience, maturity, leadership and conservative values.

Nobody ever thought that McCain could win the “change” battle over Obama — the Democrat simply was better-positioned for a number of reasons to carry the banner of “change” — but McCain cannot afford to be overwhelmed as an agent for “change,” as is now happening.

So far, McCain has failed to take maximum advantage of his reputation as a maverick — a reputation that accounts for much of his popularity across the political spectrum.

He certainly still disagrees with President Bush and most elected leaders in his party on issues such as global warming and the environment, immigration, taxes and regulating business, yet he’s either soft-pedaled or fuzzied up some of his differences, or emphasized his support for the traditional GOP agenda.

“You can’t allow the Democratic message linking McCain and Bush to stand. You have to go after it. If it stands, it’s just too high a hill [for McCain] to get over,” one GOP strategist told me recently.

“The biggest problem for McCain is that people still see him as offering a third Bush term,” echoed one Democratic strategist who commented that McCain has wasted the spring and early summer instead of creating a “maverick” narrative that would appeal to American voters.

So where does McCain go now? I haven’t a clue.

Iraq, of course, remains both a problem and an opportunity for McCain.

Yes, McCain was correct about the surge — even if Obama is unwilling to admit it. But it isn’t clear that that matters. In defending recent Bush policy, McCain undercuts his maverick image and invites Democrats to paint him, not entirely fairly, as just another Republican defending the status quo.

McCain surely is worse off now that the Iraqi government has indicated its support for a timeline on withdrawal from Iraq. But can he afford to switch his message on Iraq? Certainly not. He’s climbed out on a limb on Iraq and has no choice but to stay out there.

McCain needs once again to embrace his maverick reputation, yet he also needs to create a contrast with Obama. But most of all, he needs to continue to raise questions about Obama’s readiness for the job to keep undecided voters from getting comfortable with the Democrat.

“The day undecided voters decide that Barack Obama can be president, the race is over,” one Republican told me recently. McCain needs to make certain that Obama continues to be under the microscope, yet in doing so, the de facto Republican nominee gives Obama the opportunity to close the deal with undecided voters.