McCain Must Attract Independents to Beat Clinton or Obama

John McCain's eight-year journey to the top of the GOP has been remarkable, even Shakespearean.

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John McCain's eight-year journey to the top of the GOP has been remarkable, even Shakespearean. It was filled with high hopes, failure, betrayal, rejection, and redemption.

And the Arizona senator's battle for the White House promises to be no less interesting. McCain, 71, survived the antipathy of his party's fractious base during the primary season and is expected to run like no other GOP nominee in a generation.

"John McCain is a different kind of Republican," says McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker. Democratic leaders beg to differ—their party has launched an aggressive campaign linking McCain with the war and tax policies of the unpopular Bush administration. But the senator has been plotting to win in November by luring independent voters and white working-class Democrats like those who crossed over for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

It's a plan that GOP strategists including John Feehery say is the only way for their party to retain the White House. "He can't afford to pander to the base," Feehery says. "He has to go forcefully to the middle, and I think he gets that—in fact, he's been dying to do that for a while." But where does that leave plans to unify the fractured GOP? Plug your ears, Rush Limbaugh, but they're probably on the back burner.

Presidential support. Other than McCain paying respects last week to former nemesis President Bush, still a hero to the far right, and accepting his endorsement on the steps of the White House, no one is expecting the senator to "walk the ledge with the right," says a source close to the campaign. "He needs to be a candidate who appeals to everyone. It's hard to thread that needle, but he proved he can."

Most Republican leaders expect great benefit from the increasingly bitter battle between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which looks more and more as though it could continue until their party's late-August convention. "The fact that millions of Democrat dollars are being directed at Democrats instead of Republicans is a real positive," says Danny Diaz, communications director for the Republican National Committee. And while the Dems duke it out, McCain has been bulking up his war chest.

After securing the nomination, he embarked on a heavy fund raising schedule that has already taken him to Florida and Georgia. He plans to depart for 10 days to Europe and the Middle East with other members of Congress and will give a speech about the trip when he returns. After that, says Hazelbaker, "our first order of business will be to begin the process of introducing [him] to the American people," at places, like the Naval Academy, that played a role in his life.

The campaign has some work to do. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll shows McCain trailing in hypothetical matchups with both Clinton, by 6 percentage points, and Obama, by 12 points. That new poll and others also suggest that McCain will have a fight on his hands in attracting moderates and independents, a majority of whom not only have a highly negative opinion of Bush but also oppose the Iraq war, which the Arizona senator firmly backs.

And Democrats plan to cede no ground. In a statement last week after McCain's White House visit, Karen Finney, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, said that McCain had "worked hard over the last eight years to throw away his maverick image and morph into the ultimate Bush Republican." Democratic strategists say they relish the prospect of Bush stumping for McCain, though it's not clear how much the nominee will make use of the president outside of private fundraising events. "If he wants my pretty face standing by his side at one of these rallies," the president said, "I'll be glad to show up."

McCain officials say they are in no hurry to pick a running mate. "We need enough time to do a great vetting, and whoever we pick will bring something to the ticket," says one campaign source. One of those qualities will most likely be youth—or relative youth. A Pew poll last year found 48 percent of respondents less likely to vote for candidates in their 70s. McCain would be 72 when he took office if elected, the oldest first-term president in history. But for now, the campaign and the Republican Party are digging in to make the senator's case to the vast American middle that will decide the race come fall.