Two days ago, I marveled at the McCain campaign’s sudden and dramatic embrace of a new strategy: No more experience argument or attack on Obama’s readiness to lead and an all-out assault on his slogan of change. If until last week the GOP was saying that it should not be blamed for the failures of the Bush Administration, its new argument is much more radical - that it is more apt at taking the country in a new direction.
There are two parts of this strategy: argue that “liberal” Democrats are part of the problem and that Obama would represent “more of the same” and convince voters that McCain is running as the anti-Bush. The first post-convention ad McCain unveiled on Saturday was meant to advance the former goal, and its new spot (released this morning) is an aggressive attempt at advancing the latter. John McCain and Sarah Palin are the “original mavericks:”
The ad lists Palin and McCain’s credentials as reformers intent on taking on Washington as if they were the ultimate outsiders. One claim is sure to inflame Democrats and hopefully will also shake up the press: The ad says that Palin stopped the “bridge to nowhere” despite the fact that numerous reports have shown that she campaigned on a pro-bridge platform in her gubernatorial bid just 18 months ago. The Obama campaign quickly came out with a release pointing out that the ad is a “lie” and some media outlets seem to be willing to call McCain out on it.
I was already puzzled that Palin chose to reiterate that claim in her acceptance speech last Wednesday, but it now seems clear that the GOP is daring Democrats to go after Palin, as they are eager to focus the attention on the bottom of their ticket.
In fact, this seems to be the GOP’s entire gamble at the moment - that the electorate is going to focus on Palin. The very obvious risk of McCain’s talking about change this much is that voters associate that word with the Obama campaign, not only because it has become his slogan but also because of his race, youth and party label. For the McCain campaign to now be this confident that it can wrestle away the change mantle means that they believe Palin will counter Obama’s advantages because of her gender, her youth and her atypical profile - and by portraying her as an outsider who has battled the Alaska GOP, they hope to make her seem as an anti-Bush maverick the way McCain isn’t being able to.
Like everything else about Palin, this is a huge gamble. For one, there is no precedent for voters thinking enough about a vice-presidential candidate to compare her to a presidential nominee. Second, there is little evidence for now that Palin is proving strong among independents, though there is no question that she is a force among the GOP base. Third, this means that the McCain campaign is betting a lot of its strategy on a candidate who is untested at the national stage.
But Marc Ambinder points out that the fact that it has never happened before does not mean that it cannot happen now. Palin is generating a lot of coverage in the final stretch of the election - that in itself is unprecedented and gives McCain a fighting change to wrestle the change mantle away from Obama. If McCain’s Palin strategy succeeds, he could gain a significant advantage among independents which would put him at the top when combined with the boost in enthusiasm among the Republican base.
In the wake of the McCain campaign’s shift, down-the-ballot Republicans are following his lead. For much of the past few months, Norm Coleman has been focused on attacking Al Franken to disqualify him in the minds of voters. His latest spot brings back the bowling alley character his campaign introduced a few months back, but this time the argument has changed, as the man touts Coleman’s “gift” to bring the two parties together:
As long as Republicans don’t go as far as Gordon Smith’s ads embracing Obama, these down-the-ballot ads will amplify the McCain campaign’s argument that the GOP is no longer Bush’s party and that independents can trust Republicans once again. But there is also a risk here: Won’t McCain’s claim that he is an atypical politican, an original maverick be hurt if all Republicans start making the same argument?