Top Republican strategists believe John McCain’s stalled presidential campaign can only be revived if the Arizona senator takes an immediate and decisive turn in direction, one marked by an almost unwavering focus on the economy and a sharp break from Bush administration economic policy.
While Barack Obama’s past associations with controversial figures such as former radical William Ayers should be a part of McCain's closing argument, they say, the GOP nominee needs to primarily concentrate on the historic nature of the current economic crisis and explain why he is better suited to lead the country out of it.
“Either McCain wins the argument over the economy or he loses,” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican Speaker of the House. “When the economy is this central to everybody’s life, when everybody is as worried as they are now, then when you are not talking about the economy you are not winning.”
“Can he come back? I think he can. But time is running very short. I would give it about a week, at the most, to turn this around,” said John Weaver, McCain’s former top strategist. “We are speaking in angry Greek and the public wants to hear economic English.
“If we think we can make the public care about William Ayers or some other things when they are afraid of losing their jobs, not being able to pay for college or work ten more years because they are worried about their retirements, we are kidding ourselves,” Weaver continued.
Whit Ayers, a longtime Republican pollster, was equally direct. “It's hard to imagine the voters thinking about anything else when the Dow Jones is dropping 500 points a day,” he said.
As much as anything else, several strategists said, McCain needs to put more distance between himself and the Bush administration’s economic policy.
“The meta frame should have been every mistake George Bush made [Barack Obama] wants to continue,” said Grover Norquist, a prominent conservative anti-tax activist.
Norquist added that McCain must liken Obama to a sequel of Bush’s domestic blunders, “more earmarks and more spending” and then return to the promise to “reform Washington.”
Gingrich agreed, arguing that McCain must acknowledge that “the Bush-Paulson strategy clearly failed,” referring to Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s stewardship of a $700 billion bailout package that has thus far failed to stabilize the financial markets.
McCain should explain that “Obama is worse” for the economy than even President Bush, said Gingrich, and then offer “what he can do” in a “bold and dramatic” framework. An example, Gingrich added, would be to propose a temporary moratorium on the capital gains tax.
Republican strategist Alex Castellanos, who most recently was a top adviser to Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, believes McCain should alter the campaign narrative by framing the crisis in historical terms and stating that “this is really a test for our country and I’ve seen tough times before and I’ve see how those moments can bring out the best in the nation.
“Tell me what happens in these situations because you’ve been there,” Castellanos continued. “You know Barack Obama has not met a test like this in his life. The biggest thing [that McCain must do] is take the bat out of Obama’s hands.”
The strategists all agreed on one thing: The immediate need for McCain to move in a dramatically different direction.
“He’s going to have to do something bold unless he basically has a very good night Wednesday night,” veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins said, referring to the upcoming final presidential debate. “If he doesn’t convince people to have a second look, it’s over.”
Rollins suggested McCain should reconsider and ledge to serve only one term in office and then focus solely on revitalizing the economy and getting troops out of Iraq.
“The reality is that it’s almost a 60-foot wave coming over the top of the ship,” Rollins said. “The momentum has all gone the other way.”
Castellanos believes McCain should “give a sense he is rebooting” his campaign. “We need drastic action,” he said.
Most of the Republicans interviewed for this story believe that, due to the economy, attempts to redefine Obama are not going to be enough to overcome the Democrat’s lead in the polls over the final weeks. Nor is a strategy based on following the same script that has worked repeatedly in modern presidential cycles--framing the Democrat as too culturally extreme for mainstream America.
“They’ve seen these candidates for nearly two years and in battleground states incessantly and two debates,” Castellanos said. “And a message that says don’t believe what you saw, that Barack Obama is someone else, I think it’s a tough sell.”
Likewise, many Republicans believe that raising Obama’s past connections to Ayers, a onetime leader of the fringe leftist group Weather Underground that carried out several domestic bombings in the early 1970s, cannot strike a chord given the current economic environment.
“You are throwing up things that under normal circumstances that should be enough for voters to question his position and integrity,” said Saul Anuzis, the Michigan Republican chairman. “Obama wouldn’t even qualify as a Secret Service agent because of his associations with Bill Ayers, yet he is running for president.”
Colorado Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams said that Ayers should be combined in advertising with other issues like Obama’s links to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which is now under investigation in several states for possible voter registration fraud.
“Just talking about how Obama was friendly with a guy who was a terrorist in the 60s, that’s interesting but I don’t think that’s going to move a lot of voters,” Wadhams said. McCain should continue to try to “tie” the “whole network of ACORN and these far left organizations.”
Given the economic and political climate, several Republicans expressed surprise that Obama is not as far ahead as other Democrats might be under the same circumstances—which suggests to them he remains vulnerable to a late McCain surge.
“There is a reason he’s still teetering around 50 [percent in the polls], people have doubts about him, some legitimate,” Weaver said.
But, Weaver noted, McCain will not be able to take advantage of Obama’s weaknesses without a much sharper economic argument.
“This is the worst environment for a Republican since 1932. The tide may be so much that we can’t swim against it. But we are not even trying to,” Weaver said. “To have any chance and not do lasting damage to the Republican brand, we have to offer an economic alternative.”