Why McCain Should Feel Liberated

The bottom-line of the rather extensive survey released on Wednesday by the Pew Center for the People and the Press is no different from that of just about every other poll released this summer: a slim (three points in this case) lead for Barack Obama.

But a few of the specific findings of the Pew survey would seem to offer guidance to Obama and John McCain as they make important strategic decisions for the fall.

On the whole, the poll is better news for McCain than it is for Obama, as is any poll that has the race within the margin of error right now (since the expectation at the start of this summer was the Obama would be nursing a healthy lead by mid-August). Pew pinpoints the presumptive G.O.P. nominee’s strength (and the slight tightening of the race since their last survey in August) to an increase in his support among Republicans and among lower-income white voters.

McCain now enjoys a healthy 88-7 percent lead over Obama among Republicans. This is about the kind of intra-party unity that any nominee should expect, but conventional wisdom has long held that McCain faces an unusually difficult challenge in uniting his party, given the right’s longstanding distaste for him.

There was also talk earlier in the campaign that Obama, with his warm personality and talk of bridging partisan divides, would be able to make significant inroads with Republican voters – particularly with so many party members souring on President Bush and the G.O.P.’s Washington leadership. (This talk was rekindled a bit on Tuesday, when a group of Republicans – headlined by former Senator Lincoln Chafee and former Rep. Jim Leach – announced the formation of Republicans for Obama.) For all of his seeming potential, though, the Pew data suggests that Obama isn’t faring much better with Republicans than John Kerry or Al Gore did.

Notably, even with Republicans lining up squarely behind McCain, the Pew numbers do not indicate a corresponding uptick in the enthusiasm of Republican voters for McCain. In other words, Republicans indicated that they are almost all ready to vote for McCain – but only while holding their noses.

This is both understandable and significant. It’s understandable because, as I wrote in an earlier column, intense personal animosity toward Obama and the voters he is seen as representing has blossomed on the right. Whereas he was once the earnest and likable guy they pitied for having to face the Clinton Attack Machine, conservatives have now trained themselves to see Obama as an arrogant and elitist radical – and his supporters as members of a mindless, celebrity-worshiping cult. That they still aren’t very fond of McCain really doesn’t matter; it’s more than enough (for them) that he isn’t Obama.

This is significant for McCain because it offers him a level of freedom from the G.O.P. base that it was long ago assumed he’d never enjoy. Conventional wisdom has dictated that McCain’s apostasies are so numerous, and the suspicion toward him from the right so overwhelming, that even the slightest misstep will jeopardize whatever fragile support he enjoys from conservatives. This doesn’t seem to be true, though. McCain has taken some steps to mollify his old critics on the right (off-shore drilling, for example), but there are no signs that conservative purists suddenly believe that he is one of them. (Hence their lack of enthusiasm.)

But the fact that they’re still lining up with him despite this lack of enthusiasm indicates just how powerful their almost-primal fear of Obama has become. In practical terms, it suggests that McCain can take more steps aimed at winning over moderate and independent voters without blowing up his base of support on the right.At the end of the day, he’s not Obama – and, at the end of the day, that’s probably enough for the right.

Specifically, this could factor into McCain’s running-mate decision. Conventional wisdom holds that he can not select Joe Lieberman (who, if he didn’t have to worry about politics, would probably be McCain’s top choice for V.P.) because of Lieberman’s liberal views on abortion, gay rights, the environment and a host of other issues on which he agrees (and votes in the Senate) with most Democrats.

But if the right already sees through McCain and is prepared to vote for him anyway, would Lieberman really be a deal breaker? Especially when the right saw how furious his selection would make the left – and when Lieberman began relentlessly shredding Obama with harsh, Zell Miller-ish rhetoric? (If you think Lieberman has been hard on Obama so far, you haven’t seen anything yet.) McCain may well have the latitude he’d need to offer Lieberman a slot on his ticket – a move that would radically change the dynamics of the race, given the appeal a bipartisan ticket would have to independent voters.

The Pew numbers should, by contrast, be sobering to Obama as he makes his own V.P. decision.

A few weeks ago, the presumptive Democratic nominee seemed to be focusing his search on Washington outsiders, with Tim Kaine (in particular) and Kathleen Sebelius the focus of intense media speculation. Just as McCain likely prefers Lieberman in his heart, Obama would probably rather choose one of those two, in part for personal reasons (he seems to have an unusually strong bond with both of them) and to send a political message about change and reforming Washington.

But unlike McCain, Obama needs to rein in these instincts, because Pew’s data confirms just how counter they are to his very real political imperatives. Most alarmingly, the poll showed McCain leading whenever leadership attributes were tested. For instance, on the matter of judgment in a crisis, McCain enjoyed a 15-point edge – a number that could spike now that the Georgia-Russia crisis has landed foreign policy back on the front pages. At the same time, Pew shows Obama dominating – by a 69 to 17 percent spread – on the question of which candidate represents new ideas.

Taken together, these findings would seem to indicate where Obama should go with h is V.P. search. The public, not surprisingly, overwhelmingly views Obama as a fresh face and an agent of change. That will not change, even if he puts an old, wrinkly man on his ticket. But the public, also not surprisingly, is having some difficulty with the idea of him leading the country during a crisis. This concern has nothing to do with whether his policy prescriptions are actually better for America’s security than McCain’s. For voters, it’s a gut-level question – and it’s one that a reassuring running-mate can go a long way toward resolving satisfactorily for Obama.

Why McCain Should Feel Liberated