John McCain and Barack Obama have begun recalibrating their campaign strategies and reconsidering some of their basic assumptions about which states and voters are in play, in a contest recast by McCain's unexpected selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate.
A day after McCain announced his decision, both sides were trying to gauge the risks and opportunities of having a relatively inexperienced, socially conservative woman on the Republican ticket.
The Obama campaign and the Democratic Party had prepared lines of attack directed at the two men who had been most often mentioned as vice presidential possibilities for McCain, former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, but had not considered Palin a likely enough choice to do the same for her. A new ad linking President Bush to McCain was quickly put together, but it contained only a fleeting mention of Palin.
That tentativeness reflected what Obama's advisers said was their struggle to figure out how to challenge the credentials of a woman whose candidacy could be embraced by many as a historic milestone. Once formally nominated at the GOP convention in St. Paul, Minn., this week, Palin, who was elected governor two years ago, will be the second woman chosen by a major party as a vice presidential candidate.
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Obama's campaign does not plan to go directly after Palin in the days ahead. Instead, it is planning to increase its attacks on McCain for his opposition to pay equity legislation and abortion rights – two issues of paramount concern to many women – as it tries to head off his effort to use Palin to draw Democratic and independent women who had supported Hillary Clinton.
McCain's advisers said that rallying wavering women will be one of Palin's main jobs in the weeks ahead. They said her campaign schedule will take her to areas in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where there were pockets of women who had supported Clinton in the primaries.
At the same time, they suggested, Palin would also be given the task of appealing to evangelical voters, who have long been unenthusiastic about McCain. In many ways, the choice of Palin may prove to have been as much an effort to drive up turnout among the Republican base as it was a move to compete for women.
“We had a solid Republican and evangelical base,” said Charlie Black, a Charlotte native who is a senior adviser to McCain. “But now it's going to be very intense.”
James Dobson, the influential conservative Christian leader who said in the primaries that he could never vote for McCain, said the selection of Palin had won him over. If he went into the voting booth today, Dobson told talk radio host Dennis Prager on Friday, “I would pull that lever.”
If Palin motivates evangelicals to rally behind the Republican ticket as they did for Bush in 2004, it could prove significant in states such as Iowa and Ohio, where Republicans won by slim margins in 2004. It could also have an effect in North Carolina, a solidly Republican state that Obama is trying to win by appealing to black voters and new residents.
Republican leaders in North Carolina, who had been increasingly anxious over Obama's intensive efforts in the state, said they are heartened by the selection of Palin.
“Our people are excited,” said Linda Daves, chairwoman of the N.C. Republican Party. “The social conservatives are one area where she is going to resonate.”
McCain is focusing heavily on taking two big states away from the Democrats: Michigan and Pennsylvania. Both have blocs of white, working-class voters who are anxious about the economy, a group that has given Obama difficulty and could be receptive to Palin's support for gun rights and the portrayal of her as a churchgoing mother of five who shares their values.
Early concerns among Republicans that McCain would not have enough money to compete have eased. Once he becomes the nominee at the end of this week, he will be eligible for $84 million in matching federal money. That is enough, Republicans said, for him to remain competitive with Obama, who has opted out of the public financing system and its spending limits but has to invest time and money in fundraising before Election Day.
Obama intends to campaign throughout the Republican convention, visiting Indiana, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He will pay particular attention to female voters and will continue to press McCain on national security.
Obama's advisers said that compared with the mountains of data they had gathered on Pawlenty and Romney, they have far less information on Palin. Aides said the party was sending staff members and allies in Alaska to sort through public documents relating to Palin's time in the governor's mansion, her two terms as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, and her two terms as a member of the Wasilla City Council.
Democrats are not the only ones doing some fast regrouping. Republican organizers said the convention aides in charge of reviewing every speech delivered from the lectern are now on the watch for blunt attacks on Obama's readiness to lead, and reviewing how much to emphasize what had been the convention theme: “Not Ready '08.” They are aware that such criticism in a high-profile setting would provide an opportunity for Democrats to make the same charge against Palin, who has almost no foreign policy experience and has been governor for just 20 months.