Even as the Pennsylvania GOP went on TV this weekend with a last-ditch ad reminding Keystone state voters of Barack Obama’s former pastor and a third-party Republican group aired a similar pastiche of his fiery sermons, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright wound up playing a far less central role in this campaign than originally anticipated.
But what would have happened had John McCain and the Republican Party been willing to aggressively use Wright’s incendiary comments against Obama, holding up his relationship with his former pastor to question the Democratic nominee’s judgment?
It’s all hindsight now, a day before voters go to the polls and months after McCain effectively decided the recently retired pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ would be off-limits.
But it is sure to be one of the most hotly debated questions among Republicans and political observers in the weeks ahead should McCain not come from behind to win on Tuesday.
Conversations with a number of veteran GOP consultants indicate that using Wright may have helped McCain with one set of voters — but would have hurt with others and not ultimately proved decisive in a contest subsumed by larger external forces such as the economic crisis and the unpopularity of President Bush and the Republican Party.
“This was a race that was about the economy and about change,” said Stuart Stevens, a longtime GOP adman who worked for Bush’s campaigns. “It really wasn’t about anything else, and all the king’s men couldn’t make it about anything else.”
Because the contest was so shaped by pocketbook concerns, to have focused on anything else would have appeared politically tone deaf, he said.
“In an issue-less election, with the ‘right track’ to the good, maybe you could have,” Stevens observed. “It would have been like showing up with a cricket bat to the Super Bowl — that’s not the game we’re playing.”
What most all Republican strategists agree on is that in order to use Wright against Obama effectively, the assault would have needed to have been begun earlier in the campaign and as part of a broader message — unlike the McCain camp’s halfhearted attempt to link the Democrat to 1960s-era domestic terrorist William Ayers in early October, a line of attack McCain himself never fully embraced and that the campaign ultimately removed from Sarah Palin’s stump speech.
Yet there would have been challenges, even with an early anti-Wright message.
First, if McCain’s campaign could have coaxed the candidate into signing off on hammering Wright, the candidate’s unease with the topic may have diluted its effectiveness.
“John McCain has difficulty delivering those kinds of attacks,” noted Terry Nelson, who until last year managed the Arizona senator’s campaign. “It’s better to not put a candidate in a position to do something they’re not good at.”
And even if McCain been willing to drive a Wright message beginning in the summer and done so consistently, keeping it up during the financial crisis may not have been plausible.
“[Targeting Wright] pre-Labor Day may have gotten lost in economic news,” said Carl Forti, who runs the conservative group Freedom’s Watch.
Alex Castellanos, a veteran Republican media consultant, said that Obama was lucky in a way that Wright got so much exposure in the spring as to become effectively old news.
Scott Howell, another longtime GOP ad maker, agreed, contending that the media would have focused on the decision of McCain to use Wright as the underlying attack.
“The biggest case against using Wright is that most of the media would have said, ‘Now that it&rsqo;s not new news, it’s been done and we aren’t repeating it’ — and then editorialized that McCain was trying to bring race into the campaign,” Howell surmised.
But both Castellanos and Howell said that there were ways that Wright could have been incorporated to at least do some damage to Obama.
Castellanos, a Romney adman during the GOP primary, noted that McCain could have used Obama’s attendance at Trinity at the start of the general election campaign to reinforce his larger argument that Obama avoids taking hard stands in politics and beyond.
“He sits in a church pew for 20 years because he wants to become part of that Chicago community,” noted Castellanos, sounding out the message. “He does not raise his voice. He goes along in silence. He votes present.”
Howell said the most damning line of attack would have been to contrast Wright’s fiery sermons with Obama’s conciliatory speeches, raising questions about just what Obama believes.
“The most credible ad you can make is one where the person’s own remarks indict them,” said Howell. “I would have as much real audio and video as possible to lend credibility to my argument.”
Added Forti: “Tell the facts, and let the viewer draw the conclusion.”
It’s a commercial that, after Wright’s sermons emerged this spring, seemed a no-brainer to many on the right. The belief, though unstated publicly, was that white voters would be frightened by clips of a controversial black pastor and the images would cloud Obama’s soothing, post-racial aura.
Heading into Election Day, it appears from the final round of pre-election polls that the vast majority of the remaining undecided voters in battleground states are white. They are keeping Obama below the telltale 50 percent mark in many state polls and represent McCain’s last best hope to pull an upset. These fence-sitters may not ultimately support Obama — but they also may not be roused enough to even vote for either option.
Could Wright have been enough to drive them en masse to McCain?
Rick Wilson, a Republican media consultant, crafted the Wright ad currently being aired by the National Republican Trust. It is replete with some of the pastor’s most inflammatory statements and serves as a reminder of what could have been. While airing in some key states and on national cable, it didn’t go on the air until the final days of the campaign and has not stood out amid a flurry of other political commercials, nor gotten the sort of media attention as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.
“The dog is barking,” Wilson insists, ”but the story is that it took an outside group to step up and smack Obama in his smug mouth.”
It may be too little, too late.
Or, more significantly, in an election that turned more on economic issues than the character of the candidates to a degree not seen since 1992, this dog may not have been heard even if it had howled.
Asked Sunday night about McCain’s decision not to touch Wright, campaign manager Rick Davis acknowledged that many in the party’s grassroots would liked to have seen them use the pastor as an issue.
“You’ll never find a single person out there who thinks that that was a good idea who is part of our coalition,” he said.
As for what he thought of the decision to stay away from Wright, Davis said: “I love it. I think it’s exactly what John McCain is all about. I don’t need him to win.”