Sizing Up A McCain-Obama Battle

This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
Although the political world is still awaiting Hillary Clinton's final exit from the stage, the long drama of who will represent the major parties in November's presidential contest finally - mercifully, some might say - drew to a close Tuesday night. (Full story here.) For the next five months, barring the extremely unexpected, Barack Obama and John McCain will square off day-by-day in one of the most historic elections in modern history.

And on Tuesday night, both candidates offered a glimpse of their opening arguments. "In just a few years in office, Senator Obama has accumulated the most liberal voting record in the Senate," McCain said in a speech delivered before Obama had the chance to claim victory. "But the old, tired, big government policies he seeks to dust off and call new won't work in a world that has changed dramatically since they were last tried and failed. That's not change we can believe in."

"It's not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush ninety-five percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year," Obama countered in his victory speech. "It's not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college - policies that have lowered the real incomes of the average American family, widened the gap between Wall Street and Main Street, and left our children with a mountain of debt."

Let the general election campaign begin.

In broad terms, Democrats have reason to be optimistic: The electoral landscape is presently more favorable to a Democratic nominee than at any time in recent memory. As he nears the end of his second term, President Bush's approval rating is below 30 percent, and, more broadly, Americans have signaled widespread dissatisfaction with the Republican Party. Already this year, Democrats have won three House seats in districts considered GOP strongholds in special elections, prompting anguished appeals from GOP leaders imploring their members to find a new direction - or else.

Also working in the Democrats' favor: A large majority of Americans have become pessimistic about an economy long overseen by a Republican president. The Iraq war has also become a political liability for the GOP, with nearly six in ten Americans telling CBS News the U.S. should have stayed out of the country.

Democrats, meanwhile, have repeatedly seen record turnout during the primaries. Their candidates have enjoyed unprecedented fundraising success, and Obama is poised to become the first candidate to turn down public financing in the general election.

In addition, "the balance of party identification in the American electorate now favors the Democratic Party by a decidedly larger margin than in either of the two previous presidential election cycles," according to the Pew Research Center.

"Every structural feature on the political landscape tilts in favor of the Democratic nominee," according to William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former advisor to Bill Clinton.

"There's not a lot of precedent for someone from the same party as the incumbent running successfully in circumstances that are perceived to be as bad economically as the electorate perceives the situation to be right now," Galston said. "And running in the face of a deeply unpopular war, especially when the nominee of the incumbent party is unwilling to end the war. When you add to that the extraordinary drop in GOP identification, the surge in Democratic registration, the palpable enthusiasm gap, the fundraising gap, you put all these things together, you have to think the McCain candidacy will be an uphill climb."

Democrats will work throughout the campaign to define McCain as a true representative of his party, said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman.

"You're going to be seeing Democrats argue that McCain represents four more years of George Bush, both in Iraq and here at home," said Mellman. "Barack Obama is going to offer change, and John McCain offers more of the same failed Bush policy."

But that argument is perhaps harder to make against McCain than other Republicans, thanks to the Arizona senator's public image as a maverick willing to break with his party. McCain is "the one candidate who can win in this climate," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres, echoing the general consensus of strategists in both parties. "He's a different kind of Republican in an era that is looking for a different kind of Republican."

Veteran Republican strategist Tucker Eskew, a former aide to Mr. Bush, said Republicans have reason to be "cautiously optimistic" about McCain's chances despite the electoral landscape. He cites Obama's perceived lack of experience and the strength of McCain's brand as an independent thinker, established through his past breaks with his party on issues like taxes and campaign finance reform.

"The brand is stronger than wishful-thinking Democrats believe it is," said Eskew. "I actually detect a strain of excess optimism by some Democrats about this question. If Senator Obama is not careful, this 'third Bush term' thing is going to be just beaten into the ground and start to sound ridiculous, and that's a function of Senator McCain's brand being as strong as it is."

University of New Hampshire political analyst Dante Scala notes that the electoral landscape didn't look particularly good for Mr. Bush in 2004, but he was still able to defeat Democratic nominee John Kerry.

"The Republicans managed to make the election more about Kerry, and to raise significant doubts about him," said Scala. "That's the hope this time. Obama is going to have to overcome the doubts that have arisen about him in the past few months."

The campaigns, Galston said, will generally not be focused on pushing their candidate towards to center of the political spectrum. Instead, he said, "each will be trying to shove the other candidate out of the center." For Republicans, that means portraying Obama as a naive liberal whose rhetoric contradicts the reality of his record.

"Senator Obama's experience, as limited as it is, cuts against one of his proclaimed core values - unconventional thinking and a willingness to cross the partisan divide," said Eskew. "He has a record that is conventionally liberal, and shallow on any example of cross-partisan accomplishments, where McCain is really quite strong."

Ayers articulated the other charge that will likely be repeatedly leveled at Obama in the general election battle - that he is an out-of-touch elitist, a change also leveled at Kerry four years ago. It's a perception stoked by Obama's comments at a closed-door San Francisco fundraiser about small town voters who cling to guns and religion.

"Obama has horrible problems with blue collar voters right now," he said. "...and a big part of it is cultural. He has come across in recent weeks as a candidate who feels more comfortable at Berkeley or Harvard than he does anywhere in between. A lot of blue collars voters just don't see him as as patriotic as they are. They don't believe he loves America as much as they do. They want their president to be their country's #1 cheerleader, and they don't see Obama as that guy."

McCain, meanwhile, has to position himself as a change candidate despite a long tenure in Washington that has led some pundits to compare his bid to the failed 1996 candidacy of Bob Dole. He will also have to allay fears about his age: McCain will be 72 on inauguration day, which would make him the oldest incoming president in history. Though Democrats have vowed not to spotlight the age issue, Democratic political consultant Garry South suggested they won't have to.

"It will be obvious to people," said South. "All he needs is 2 or 3 senior moments and no one has to talk about age." In 1996, Dole famously fell from a stage during a California campaign rally, prompting late-night jokes about the frailty of the then 73-year-old Republican nominee.

McCain will also need to walk a delicate line as he tries to win over the independents whom both candidates view as key to the election, while also placating the Republican base that helped Mr. Bush to victory in the last two elections - and that remains skeptical about McCain as the GOP standard bearer. As South points out, McCain has been losing up to 30 percent of the primary vote in recent primaries, despite having long since effectively locked up the nomination.

"He has a huge base problem," said South. "They just aren't satisfied with him."

Democrats, Galston said, will seek to define McCain as far from the moderate that independent voters think him to be, spotlighting issues like McCain's pro-life position on abortion.

"The basic strategic imperative of the Obama campaign is to do whatever they can against McCain's effort to separate himself from the Bush administration," said Galston. "They have to say McCain is campaigning as a maverick and a moderate, but on the issues you care about most - the economy, war, health care - he is, if anything, more conservative than Bush. So don't be fooled by shows of moderation on second and third tier issues. On first tier issues, he is Bush on steroids."

Obama, in his effort to win over independents, will spotlight his biography and downplay his association with his controversial former reverend, Jeremiah Wright, whom he publicly broke with in a speech last month. His campaign will also look to build on its robust state-by-state voter registration and mobilization efforts that it created for the primary battle, drafting young and new voters that could help offset any weakness Obama has with the blue-collar voters who flocked to Clinton in the latter part of the Democratic primary campaign.

Both candidates will seek the upper hand on the economy - an area where neither candidate is perceived to be an expert - and national security. McCain, like Clinton, has cast Obama as naive and reckless when it comes to foreign policy, criticizing the Illinois senator for his stated willingness to meet with leaders of rogue countries without preconditions and for comments that McCain says signal that Obama does not take the threat of Iran sufficiently seriously. Obama has countered that McCain "wants to double down" on Bush's "failed policy" and argued that "tough, disciplined and direct diplomacy" is the essence of strong presidential leadership.

Thanks to his relative moderation on immigration issues, McCain is better positioned than many of his Republican primary rivals to win over the Latino voters that could be the key to winning states like Nevada and New Mexico. It's a group Obama has struggled to win over during the primary campaign, and he will look to key supporters like New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a former rival for the nomination who has endorsed Obama, to mobilize their support. Obama may also benefit from the traditional strength of the Democratic Party brand among Latino voters.

South, the Democratic consultant, suggested that Obama could outspend McCain two- or three-to-one in the general election campaign, arguing that the Chicago senator has the potential to raise $500 million. Though the fundraising gap is a major concern for Republicans, the Republican National Committee and other groups are prepping unprecedented efforts on McCain's behalf.

"Barack Obama is going to see a barrage of ads that dwarfs dramatically the swift boat attacks against Kerry," said Democratic consultant Steve Jarding.

Unlike the Democratic primary campaign, which often seemed a battle of competing styles in the absence of any significant policy differences between the candidates, the general election campaign will feature candidates with substantive differences on matters like the war, the economy, and health care. Whether the election is a referendum on these matters or on the candidates themselves remains anyone's guess.

"I've thought all along that Obama is kind of a high risk/high reward candidate," said Scala. "This could be an election that isn't close either way."

By Brian Montopoli