Politics & Government

The battle for independents

Having nailed down the essentials in St. Paul and Denver, John McCain and Barack Obama now have their sights set on an essential group of voters who weren't at either convention: independents.

McCain made strides in securing the conservative base of the Republican Party with his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate. By most accounts, he pulled together a star-crossed GOP convention at the end by offering himself as a battle-tested warrior prepared to shake up Washington.

Likewise, Obama used the Democratic Convention to bring his party together after a bruising primary fight and to tell voters what he means when he talks about the central refrain of his campaign: change.

What lies in front of the candidates now is a small fraction of the electorate – 12 percent to 15 percent in polls last week – that remains persuadable in two months' time.

Pollster Ed Reilly described the current state of this contest as extraordinary considering that voter sentiment typically firms up much later in the election.

“There's not a lot out there that's movable and they are mostly independents,” said Reilly, who conducted a National Journal poll last week reflecting the hardened attitude of voters.

Echoed Rep. Tom Davis, a retiring congressman from Virginia who often is a critic of his Republican Party, “This race is all about independents.”

In that effort, Davis added, the GOP has “a generic deficiency”: voters' strong preference for Democratic candidates this year, which recent polls measure as a double-digit advantage.

The same polls show that McCain has largely evened the odds with Obama thanks in part to his reputation as a rebellious senator unafraid to challenge the orthodoxy of his party, a theme he hammered in his acceptance speech Thursday.

But Republican strategists acknowledge that McCain has little room for error.

“With the structural problem the Republicans have, they can't leave any votes on the table,” said Terry Nelson, field director for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in 2004.

Republicans are hoping to close the so-called “enthusiasm gap” with Obama, who has had stronger support from his voters. Palin appears to be generating the kind of excitement that can draw Republicans to the polls and satisfy social conservatives and evangelicals with whom McCain has had little rapport over the years.

Can Palin help snare independent voters?

National polls last week reflecting Palin's selection showed independents breaking roughly even between McCain and Obama or Obama slightly ahead.

Few if any vice presidential candidates have had a significant effect on elections beyond a 2- to 3-percentage- point improvement in their home states. Republicans hope this year is different.

“We may have found our next Reagan, and she wears a skirt,” the Virginia-based Americans for Limited Government, a conservative advocacy group, proclaimed in an e-mail to members Friday.

Palin's choice has generated unusual focus on running mates.

News organizations are making a furious effort to supply information about a little-known politician who could be the nation's second-in-command behind a 72-year-old man who has fought off skin cancer and other physical problems.

And the Oct. 2 debate between Palin and Sen. Joe Biden in St. Louis has become one of the most anticipated political events of the fall.

Democrats insist that the hoopla surrounding Palin diverts from the central question of this campaign: which presidential candidate will succeed in convincing people that he can bring relief from cascading economic troubles and change from failing government policies?

Do independents differ much from Republicans and Democrats in their concerns? Like everybody, they're worried about the economy. But independents tend to be far more opposed to the Iraq war than Republicans and much less concerned about the threat of terrorism – both good for Obama.

The campaign has shaped up thus far as one of themes: Obama's mantra of change versus more of the same up against McCain's emphasis on character and experience.

But McCain also speaks of change underscoring the real possibility that the nation is experiencing one of those realigning elections that don't often come around. Some predict that as many as 25 million more voters than in 2004 could show up at the polls.

In St. Paul last week, some Republicans worried that November could be shaping up like 1980, when Republicans took control after what was considered a failed presidency – only in reverse.

“This year, it's a very similar situation,” remarked David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Keene spelled out what may determine the choice of the minority of persuadable voters that remain: “The public would like to get rid of Republicans, but they don't know if Barack Obama is somebody they can trust.”