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With Obama’s message clear, GOP worries about McCain’s shifting slogans

While voters readily associate Sen. Barack Obama with “change,” they’re less sure of Sen. John McCain’s message, which veers between selling him as a committed conservative and as an independent thinker.

Supporters cheer Sen. Barack Obama in St. Paul.
REUTERS/Jason Reed
Supporters cheer Sen. Barack Obama in St. Paul.

At a communications seminar I attended recently, the speaker asked the 45 members of the audience what Sen. Barack Obama’s message was. Nearly everyone in the room repeated “change,” or some variation. She then asked the same question about Sen. John McCain, who has been in Washington and around politics far longer than Obama. No one could say what his campaign message was.

The lack of a clear message and a focus to McCain’s campaign has the critics wondering what the problem is and why. And some of the Arizona senator’s harshest critics are fellow Republicans.

Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin write in the Washington Post: “But even as McCain’s strategists claim tactical victories, Republicans outside the campaign worry that underlying weaknesses in its organization and message are costing him valuable time to make the case for his own candidacy. Allies complain that the campaign has offered myriad confusing themes that lurch between pitching McCain as a committed conservative one day and an independent-minded reformer the next, while displaying little of the discipline and focus that characterized President Bush’s successful campaigns. Several Republican supporters of the presumptive nominee said they were puzzled by a series of easily avoidable mistakes, including sloppy political stagecraft and poorly timed comments that undercut McCain’s reputation as a maverick. …

” ‘I’m baffled that the McCain guys have somehow managed to take a guy who practically had “reform” tattooed to his forehead and turned him into the bastion of the status quo,’ said one Republican strategist, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity.”

Changing slogans
They cite the changing campaign slogans. At one rally, “a much-ridiculed green background behind McCain sported the new phrase ‘A Leader We Can Believe In,’ a play on Obama’s message of ‘Change We Can Believe In.’ But just a few days later the campaign had ditched that slogan and replaced it with ‘Reform. Prosperity. Peace.’ “

New York Times conservative columnist William Kristol weighed in, focusing on McCain and Obama events the night Obama clinched the nomination earlier this month:

“He (McCain) read a disjointed set of remarks at a badly staged rally at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, La. Here’s part of an e-mail message I received as McCain spoke, from a Republican who admires him: ‘They could have done so well tonight, shown a tone of  confidence. Instead it looks like a bad Congressional race: dumb green puke background, small crowd … Makes me want to cry.’ Soon after Republicans finished shedding tears of frustration, Democrats were weeping tears of joy. Obama spoke about an hour later in a packed sports arena in St. Paul, Minn….

“In any case, with the battle against Hillary Clinton behind him, everything seems to be going swimmingly for Obama. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign dog-paddles along. And almost every Republican I’ve talked to is alarmed that the McCain campaign doesn’t seem up to the task of electing John McCain. Several of these worried McCain supporters cited the decision by the campaign gurus that McCain’s Tuesday night speech should consist in large part of criticisms of Obama’s various proposals. The attacks often concluded, ‘That’s not change we can believe in.’ Is it wise to begin a general election campaign by making fun of your opponent’s slogan and presenting yourself mostly as a debunker of his claims? Even hard-hearted Republicans think a general election message should be a bit more positive than that.”

Support for the surge in Iraq
Kristol concludes by contending that McCain was right about the troop surge in Iraq and that he should hold that up as an example of his leadership. “Can McCain get voters to consider his leadership in this instance, and get them to ask when Obama took a similarly courageous stand on any issue? Yes he can — but it’s not clear if his campaign will be much help.”

Paul West writes in the Baltimore Sun  that “John McCain once had the most powerful brand in American politics. He was often called the country’s most popular politician and widely admired for his independent streak. It wasn’t too many years ago that ‘maverick’ was the cliché of choice in describing him.

“But that term didn’t even make the list this year when voters were asked by the Pew Research Center to sum up McCain in a single word. ‘Old’ got the most mentions, followed by ‘honest,’ ‘experienced,’ ‘patriot,’ ‘conservative’ and a dozen more. The words ‘independent,’  ‘change’ or ‘reformer’ weren’t among them.   Voters have notoriously short memories, but it could be argued that McCain cheapened his own brand.

“He embraced President Bush and attempted to become, like Bush, the choice of the Republican establishment. In the process, he helped obliterate recollections of his first run for president, when he became the first Republican in a long time with strong crossover appeal to independents and Democrats. Losing his reputation for independence could prove particularly costly this year.”

‘A muddled message’
Hamline University political science professor David Schultz said in an interview that McCain’s problem is that “he has a muddled message: On one hand wants to inculcate the straight talk express; the maverick. The second message is experience or leadership message. Third one is to appropriate Obama’s change message. His message is muddled because of difficult position as a candidate. He can’t overtly break with Bush, but because the President is unpopular he has to have some significant breaks. He has to figure out a way of messaging to shore up fiscal conservatives and evangelicals. He’s trying to appeal to so many different constituencies….

“Obama, on the other hand, is benefitting from fact that enormous part of public wants a change. … 80 percent say the country is going in wrong direction. They believe the economy is going in wrong direction. The notion of change is holding people for Obama. … He’s been successful in not getting specific. He becomes an empty vessel into which people throw their hopes. If he can figure out way of saying ‘change’ at same time providing just enough, but not too much detail, his message works.”

Adrienne Christiansen, a political science professor at Macalester College who studies political rhetoric, told MinnPost that McCain’s message seems to be ” ‘I’m more experienced.’  That doesn’t say much. Unfortunately, most Americans care less about experience than a compelling idea. He’s in a difficult position because people know who he is. It will be hard for him to come up with a message. He’s roundly disliked by the Republican base. … He’s riding on his good will with the media. Rather than fashioning a coherent message, he’s riding on his image, ‘straight talk express.’ “

In the end, Christiansen says, McCain’s “compelling personal story may be his most effective message: soldier, patriot, P.O.W, likeable, maverick.”

McCain’s campaign advisers say they aren’t worried, telling the Washington Post that criticisms of the campaign are “armchair quarterbacking” and citing polls showing a close national race.

Candidates even among independents
And among independents, where much of the election may be fought, polls show the two candidates running even.

Bill Schneider, CNN’s polling guru, says “only 33 percent (of independents) have a favorable opinion of Republicans, while 53 percent like the Democrats — a big difference. … If independents are so down on Republicans, why do so many of them support McCain? Because most independents think McCain will be different from Bush. Otherwise, McCain wouldn’t have a chance. …

“Independents don’t like the Republican brand, but they like McCain. For independents, the brand comes second. For partisans, the brand comes first. A reporter once asked Harry Truman, ‘Do you vote for the man or for the party?’ Truman answered, ‘I always vote for the best man. He is the Democrat.’ “

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.