ENPR: Abortion and Obama Missteps Give McCain Momentum

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: For the next two weeks as we cover the conventions—the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in St. Paul—we will have a different publishing schedule, sending you ENPR twice a week: on Mondays and Fridays. On Monday, August 25, you’ll get our preview of the Democratic convention, including an analysis of Obama’s running mate and a new Electoral College breakdown. On Friday, Aug. 29, we’ll send you a recap of the Dem. Convention. From St. Paul, it will be the same thing: a GOP preview on Monday, September 1, and a recap on Friday, 9/5. After that, we’ll return to normal.


  1. The Democratic National Convention and buzz over Sen. Barack Obama‘s running mate comes at the perfect time to halt Sen. John McCain‘s momentum.
  2. The broad pessimism about GOP chances has, in recent weeks, found justifiable solace in Obama’s inability to pull away. Recent Obama missteps on discussing his record (see below) together with his sub-par performance in the "Civic Forum" over the weekend (see below) have compounded Democrats’ worry.
  3. A Zogby poll showing McCain ahead by five points should not be taken to indicate he is the front-runner, but it certainly helps puncture the notion that Obama is way ahead.
  4. Obama and McCain enter the conventions in a legitimate dead-heat, with most national polls showing a statistical tie, and the Electoral College count coming down to a few razor-close states such as New Mexico and Nevada.
  5. McCain is walking on thin ice by flirting with a pro-choice running mate. Even in this economy-dominated election with Iraq as Obama’s top theme, abortion will matter.
  6. Falling oil prices, leveling gas prices, and war in the Caucasus have shifted some voter concern from the economy to foreign policy. This is a boon for McCain. There is no reason to believe, however, that the economy is actually improving, which means economic worries could once again dominate.


Abortion: Having diminished in importance since 2004, abortion is coming back to the forefront in the presidential contest.

  1. Most acutely, abortion looks likely to derail McCain’s desire to pick Sen. Joe Lieberman (I/D-Conn.) as his running mate. If McCain had his druthers, he would make the groundbreaking pick of an independent, caucusing with the Democrats, who once ran as the Democratic V.P. candidate. But he and his advisors are very concerned about pro-life blow-black.
  2. Pro-life groups have protested, orchestrating e-mail campaigns to shoot down the trial balloon that the McCain campaign has launched. This pro-life distrust is also directed at McCain’s other favorite possible mate: former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R).
  3. McCain hopes that his pro-life answers at the evangelical forum over the weekend (see below) have given him enough credibility with the pro-life crowd that he could get away with a Ridge or a Lieberman. McCain, however, still has work to do to relieve the worries of pro-lifers who note his support of taxpayer funding of research on embryos, and have never seen him as a leader on the issue.
  4. If McCain doesn’t stumble on abortion, the issue could become one of Obama’s big problems this fall. Obama struggled at the Saddleback forum to answer questions on the topic (see below).
  5. This week, Obama made things worse by (perhaps accidentally) misrepresenting his record on bills to require hospitals to care for premature babies who survived abortion attempts. Then he accused his critics of lying. Since it has become clear that in Illinois he voted against the exact same born-alive protection bill that pro-choice stalwarts in Washington supported, Obama has offered a sliding defense.
  6. The more Obama is forced to defend his vote against requiring care for premature babies, the more he looks like a far-left liberal, and the more McCain’s still-dormant base gets riled up.

Saddleback Forum: Republican spirits were boosted over the weekend by McCain’s excellent performance at the quasi-debate hosted by evangelical super-pastor Rick Warren.

  1. McCain, by any honest measure, thoroughly outperformed Obama. One factor was the venue: a forum held by an evangelical pastor, with a focus on the social issues Obama has steadfastly avoided (and derided as divisive).
  2. Most surprisingly, McCain came across as smoother and more likable than did Obama. McCain was a story-teller while Obama was a nervous salesman.
  3. Unsurprisingly, McCain seemed more frank and more direct, while Obama was more obtuse and meandering. Obama supporters in the media defend his performance as "nuanced," but in this case, "nuanced" means "muddled and evasive." Liberals can make self-serving-and at times fair-defenses that their candidate is more "nuanced," but Obama is probably astute enough to see where John Kerry‘s, Al Gore‘s, and Bob Dole‘s "nuance" landed them.
  4. Most importantly, McCain showed himself comfortable with the entire range of issues, while Obama had to deal with issues he clearly would rather not talk about. On abortion and taxes, for example, Obama gave wandering, stammering responses while McCain was very direct and very conservative. Saturday night showed why Obama has tried since June to rule certain issues out-of-bounds, which is worrisome for the debates. If Obama can’t convince the debate hosts to stick to Iraq, the economy, and President Bush, he may be in trouble.
  5. There are two mitigating factors for Obama: McCain came into the debate with a huge lead among white evangelicals in national polls, and so Obama had less to lose than McCain. Also, while it may have been a missed opportunity for Obama, it was not a disaster. Aired during the Olympics and two-and-a-half months from Election Day, the program drew viewers who were already engaged voters, who are not as swing-able.
  6. The most important audience for McCain however, may have been conservative activists-and not just evangelicals. His unambiguously conservative answers on abortion and taxes, and his discussion of spending, hit on the issues (aside from immigration) where conservative activists distrust him most. McCain may have won over hundreds of door knockers and phone-bankers who before Saturday were planning on sitting this one out.

Obama Running Mate: Talk of Obama’s running mate has successfully distracted the media this week from his stumbles and misrepresentations of his past positions. By the end of the week, we’ll have his pick.

  1. The first question about Obama’s running mate is: Will it matter? Media attention on running mates is disproportionately large, in part because it is a rare hard fact into which to dig. Recent running mates have not played a large role in the election. Obama is such a dynamic politician with a gripping story and enough question marks that the media hardly need someone else to pay attention to. On the other hand, he is so inexperienced and such a blank slate that his running mate may make a bigger difference than most.
  2. Public incredulity over the possibility of Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) as a running mate is misplaced. Clinton is a lightning rod, but the negatives of picking her are not as large as many would imagine. Hillary in the No. 2 spot might not win over all the working-class whites who backed her in the primaries, but it will bring on board her feminists and baby-boomer liberals as enthusiastic volunteers and boosters.
  3. Sen. Joe Biden (Del.) would make sense on foreign-policy grounds, where he is prudent and well-informed, but his tendency to spout off and embarrass himself might make him too much of a liability.
  4. Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) is the safe pick. A white guy from the heartland could grant Obama credibility among wary older Democratic voters. He still probably couldn’t carry Indiana.
  5. Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) would be the safe version of Hillary Clinton. A pick outside this short-list is also possible.


Drilling: House Republicans’ continued drumbeat on drilling shows that they are relishing the role of minority. Can they parlay their short-term victories into electoral or policy success?

  1. By the beginning of the summer, House Republicans had concluded that nearly their only winning issue was expanded domestic oil drilling. Since then, they have been a broken record. By some measures, this has worked. Democrats recently have felt the need to soften their opposition to domestic drilling.
  2. At the beginning of the decade, when the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge embodied the drilling issue, most Democrats were staunchly opposed to expanded drilling. It was a matter of principle-one for which they were willing to upset their pro-ANWR labor union base.
  3. This year, Democrats have run from the issue, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) firmly blocking all votes on the issue. Democrats have gone from assailing drilling as environmentally destructive to dismissing it as too small-and too distant-a fix. Even before this month, they were becoming timid on the issue. But this month, Pelosi, Obama, and some Senate Democrats have shown a willingness to consider expanded drilling domestically.
  4. Taking a page from Senate Democrats’ tactics in the minority earlier this decade, Republicans respond to slight Democratic retreat by beating them even harder. Confident that Democrats will not embrace their full "drill here, drill now" agenda-and confident that this agenda is backed by a strong majority of voters-Republicans feel comfortable beating on Democrats no matter what.
  5. Republicans are standing on the right (popular) side of an issue that voters care about, but that’s not enough. The crucial question is: How much does any of this ultimately matter? Will GOP persistence and Democratic discomfort on this swing votes or dollars into the Republican camp? Will Democrats’ triangulation-the so-called "Gang of 10"-and the Senate GOP’s reticence on pushing drilling make it a non-issue? Is anyone paying attention to Congress during August and the Olympics?
  6. In any event, this November will be disastrous for House and Senate Republican candidates. Democrats stand to make a five-seat gain in the Senate and double-digit pickups in the House. At best, drilling will be a stop-loss for Republicans, and it’s not yet clear how it will become that.

Recent Results

Wyoming-At Large: Former state treasurer and former state Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R) won the four-way primary Tuesday with 46% to the 37% of rancher Mark Gordon (R), who spent more than $640,000 of his own money on the race. In November Lummis, a conservative, will face businessman Gary Trauner (D) in the race to replace embattled Rep. Barbara Cubin (R), who is retiring.

Trauner challenged Cubin in 2006, and came within 1,012 votes of defeating her. Immediately after his loss, he launched his 2008 campaign, while some Republicans considered a primary challenge to Cubin. Last summer, Cubin elected to retire. While Republicans sorted out their field, Trauner continued to raise money. As of June 30, Trauner had raised nearly one million, and, facing no opposition in the primary, spent less than a third of it. Lummis, meanwhile, had to spend money to win her primary.

Democrats in Wyoming have some fire in them this year, but without Cubin to run against, the Republican is the favorite here. Leaning Republican Retention.