McCain Can Rebound, GOP Strategist Says

Alex Castellanos prior to the debate on May 3, 2007 AP

Political Players is a continuing conversation with the leaders, consultants and activists who shape American politics. This week, CBS News' Brian Goldsmith talked with Republican political strategist Alex Castellanos about his party's outlook in November.

CBSNews.com: We see tracking polls that show this race anywhere from a one point Obama lead to a 12 point Obama lead. What's your view of where the campaign stands today?

Alex Castellanos: I think this campaign was tightening up until a couple of weeks ago. And I think at that point it kind of knocked the Republican brand back quite a bit. You can see that it's not only affected the McCain campaign, but you're seeing Senate races, congressional races all around the country where Republicans have dropped four or five points. So my guess today is that McCain is probably four or five points behind.

CBSNews.com: Do you get the sense that there may be some tightening over the last couple of days? Or do you think that's just a natural fluctuation?

Alex Castellanos: I think that's a little bit of a fluctuation. I think a lot of America voted last week. And I don't mean that physically, but a lot of people I think reached a decision point last week. We've seen some hardening of the vote. You look at the Republican vote and nearly 90 percent say that they're for McCain and not moving, and likewise for the Democratic vote.

I think there's a sense now, for those voters who have decided to go for Obama, the election is over. And I think we're actually going to go through a little period of buyer's remorse where people take one more look at Obama and ask, is this what I really want to do?

So I would expect it to tighten again a little bit. But Obama has a lead. And I think McCain needs a comeback strategy.

CBSNews.com: Many Republicans, as you know, are alarmed that this campaign is now being played out almost entirely on President Bush's turf from 2000 and 2004. The Kerry and Gore states seem mostly locked for Obama. So what do you think a McCain comeback strategy should look like?

Alex Castellanos: I think it's got several steps. The first thing is you start the race at the line, not the finish line. Tell voters where you are. Hey look, we've had an economic crisis. And it's happened on the Republicans' watch. And that's affected everyone with an R next to their name, certainly affected this campaign. And we're in a tough spot.

Step two is embrace the challenge and say, look we've got a tough economic situation. And if you'll think in the life of our country and your own life, these are the moments that have made us who we are. These are the moments that have brought out our best. And, you know, I know what it's like being tested. And so does this country. And this will bring out our best. And here's where we go from there.

And then step three is leading, offering a long-term solution. I think Americans want somebody to lift their eyes from their shoes, look over the horizon a little bit, and say, "Look, there's a new global economy out there, a new global economic frontier, tremendously competitive and frightening but also tremendously promising."

And America can succeed there. We can compete and win. That's the answer, that's going to lift us. And that's what I had hoped McCain would do [at the debate] and I think he has yet to do.

CBSNews.com: We heard earlier this week some pretty surprising on-the-record quotes from McCain operatives essentially saying, if we're talking about the economic crisis, we lose. We need to shift the debate to Barack Obama's vulnerabilities. Do you think that's a mistake?

Alex Castellanos: Well, I think there's very little in politics that's secret. And one of the least secret things is strategy because you communicate it by what you do. But nevertheless, I don't think you are quite that obvious with it.

The problem is, this is shoveling back the tide. There's a limit to the ability of a political campaign to make people think, when the house is burning down, that a cold meal is the problem. When a wave is this big, you either ride the wave or you get swamped by the wave.

CBSNews.com: So--to be clear about the metaphor--it's not even possible, in your view, to change the subject from the economy.

Alex Castellanos: I think, on occasion, politics reflects real life. Who knew? And this is one of those moments. I think it's incumbent on Republicans not to display a lack of confidence in our ability to deal with the real challenges that confront the country and especially economic challenges.

I mean, McCain's actually got a great story to tell there. Raise taxes now, you can pull the economy over a precipice. Put a Democratic Congress and a Democratic President in there to spend, to regulate and tax, you know, you're gonna have a car with two accelerators and no brake pedal when the country is on the edge of an economic crisis.

CBSNews.com: Are you surprised McCain hasn't made the divided government argument?

Alex Castellanos: Well, I think as we get closer to the finish line, I would expect that that'll become a bigger concern.

CBSNews.com: A lot of the commentary about the debate this week shared the view that McCain lost by not decisively winning, that he had to shake things up and he didn't. Do you agree with that?

Alex Castellanos: I think when the other team is ahead and nothing changes, that's probably a good thing for the team that's ahead. The third quarter's now over. We're going into the fourth quarter. And I think Obama has an advantage. So, yeah, I think the next debate it's going to be important to gain some ground.

CBSNews.com: Can you explain what you think the strategy of the McCain campaign is to win this election?

Alex Castellanos: Well, I think the McCain strategy has been, we have to disqualify Obama to win. And that's true. They do.

He is the alternative to a Republican brand that has taken a beaten lately. But saying that that's something you have to do does not mean that's the only thing you have to do.

And when the Obama people certainly have more than enough resources and political talent to disqualify McCain, you're back to parity in a year where the Democratic brand has an advantage. The generic ballot tilts their way.

So why vote for John McCain? And I think they had that message for a couple of weeks. And the McCain/Palin brand was, we're outsider populists. We're going to change Washington and strengthen the country. And all of a sudden, it wasn't that Washington's on the wrong track, it's that the economy's on the wrong track. And their brand -- that kind of campaign -- got shoved to the sidelines.

CBSNews.com: Now obviously, they've gotten no shortage of suggestions for how to improve their strategy. Newt Gingrich wrote that John McCain is facing the crisis of his career, that he risks losing unless he breaks more dramatically from he called Bush/Paulson economics. Do you think that's a wise move?

Alex Castellanos: I don't think it's as important that he break from Bush/Paulson as it is that he lay out his own economic vision to take the country forward. And, by design, I think that would offer sufficient contrast with the Bush administration which hasn't really focused on that.

CBSNews.com: I know that there's disagreement even within McCain's team about this, but do you think that John McCain should use Jeremiah Wright in the campaign?

Alex Castellanos: Well, I'll tell you, that was kind of litigated in front of the entire nation on every news media outlet for weeks. America knows about that. When you paint the wall the same color, America doesn't really notice a big change.

CBSNews.com: Now, you famously worked for Jesse Helms when he ran against Harvey Gantt, an African-American Democrat, in 1990. How do you think McCain deals with Obama's race? Does he ignore it? Does he have to attack him more carefully as a result of it? How does it change what the McCain campaign has to think about?

Alex Castellanos: If they're thinking about that, then they're not thinking about what they need to be to win. In politics, I have a thing called the law of the fireman. When your house is on fire, you don't care whether your fireman is male or female, tall, short, one faith or color, or what his last name is. You want him to put the fire out. And right now, I think, looking at the small insignificant divisions that aren't central to putting out the fire, and moving the country forward, trivialize the campaign.

CBSNews.com: Do you think Sarah Palin was a smart choice as McCain's running mate?

Alex Castellanos: I think Sarah Palin did something for the McCain campaign that most running mates don't do -- she gave the McCain campaign about three good weeks of lift. But more than that, she gave them a message. Until Sarah Palin came along, most Republicans, most Americans didn't know what the McCain campaign was about, what it was going to do. And with her choice, McCain sent a signal that this campaign is about changing Washington because sometimes, you know, Washington's not going to change itself.
By Brian Goldsmith
  • Brian Goldsmith

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