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Now the Hard Part

McCain's to-do list.

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2008 • By FRED BARNES
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NOW THAT HE'S WON the Republican presidential nomination, John McCain has some serious tasks ahead of him. Wooing conservatives and raising money are the least of it. Telling his life story to the country and making speeches on big issues, while Democrats continue their nomination struggle, won't be much of a challenge either.


But there are three things McCain must do that won't be easy. The most important is to bring Barack Obama down to earth from his pedestal in the heavens. He's still the likely Democratic nominee, after all, despite Hillary Clinton's primary wins yesterday. And he's mostly gotten away with campaigning as if he's on a mission to purify America, not merely running to capture the presidency.


McCain must also organize a turnout effort to match President Bush's in 2004--or exceed what Bush put together. This is necessary because it's clear the Democratic turnout is going to be larger and more enthusiastic than it was four years ago.


And he must gear his campaign to attract independents while not antagonizing conservatives, who constitute the Republican base. Conservatives are loyal Republicans, for the most part, and they didn't ditch the party even in its darkest of days in the 2006 election. It was independents who fled in 2006 to vote for Democrats, and they must be lured back this year.


Unless McCain deflates the Obama balloon, he hasn't got a chance of winning the general election. Hillary Clinton has done a bit of this, and the press has finally decided to ask Obama a few tough questions (though not many). But McCain will have to do much more.


Obama has run a campaign--a brilliant one--based on undefined words and phrases that thrill voters, especially younger ones. He talks about "change" and "hope" and "bringing us together" and "unifying the country." He doesn't talk about what's behind the lofty language: a hard-line, undeviating liberal agenda.


McCain needs to make that agenda the issue in the campaign. He must force Obama to discuss terrorism, nuclear weapons, taxes, spending, Israel, and Iran. So far, Iraq is the only issue Obama is eager to push front and center in a race against McCain. In his speech after gaining the Republican nomination last night, McCain stressed that he won't shy from talking about Iraq, though for now the issue helps Obama. But if progress toward security and political reconciliation continue in Iraq, that may not be true in November. Iraq could become McCain's best issue.


The point is that Obama must be seen as a political candidate, not as a saint. McCain must be deft in producing this change in the public's view of Obama. He must be respectful but tough, never talking about Obama the way former President Bill Clinton did before the New Hampshire primary in January.


Independents are now the mother's milk of politics. (Everybody has money.) Attracting them is what drives most presidential races. McCain has a knack for appealing to them. He does it by embracing issues they like but conservatives don't: global warming, campaign finance reform, immigration. He'll have to tread lightly here so as not to infuriate the right-wingers while he pitches for independent votes.


Finally, turnout. Bush lost the popular vote by 500,000 in 2000. In 2004, John Kerry added 8 million votes to what Al Gore had gotten in 2000. But Bush attracted an additional 11 million voters.


He did this by recruiting more than two million volunteers who managed to get more Republicans to the polls even in areas of declining population. McCain will need a similar effort in 2008, and he still has plenty of time to organize one. This isn't optional. Without a massive turnout effort, he loses.


McCain is Mr. Lucky of the 2008 campaign. Things broke his way--Romney lost in Iowa, the "surge" he'd advocated in Iraq worked, conservatives couldn't agree on a rival to McCain--and maybe they will in the general election. But McCain can't count on that. There are jobs to do if he is to be elected president and only he can do them.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.