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Both candidates are dealing with divided parties

Guy W. Farmer

As we head toward Election Day, Nov. 4, the presumptive nominees of both major parties, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, face similar problems: reuniting their divided parties.

Obama’s problem is two-fold. He must win over the angry backers of his defeated rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), and placate his party’s left-wing loonies led by messianic multi-billionaire George Soros and his powerful Moveon.org group. For his part, McCain must win over the hard-core conservative base of his party including the politically influential Religious Right. These are difficult challenges for candidates who will try to run to the center in the fall in order to attract independent and moderate voters.

Let’s look at Obama first. He’s running as a uniter ” as George W. Bush did in 2000 ” who will overcome the partisan political divide to bring us together. I hope he has more success than President Bush did. As the president prepares to leave office, the country is more divided than ever and his popularity ratings are at all-time lows. Can you say “lame duck?”

Most political observers believe that Bush’s unpopularity creates an advantage for Obama. On the other hand, however, Clinton supporters are furious, claiming that the Democratic nomination was “stolen” from them. As many as one-third of Hillary’s supporters tell pollsters that they’ll stay home or vote for McCain in November.

Other observers see a silver lining emerging from the bitter Obama/Clinton battle. Writing in the Washington Post, political analyst Alan Wolfe says the nomination battle has actually strengthened the Democratic Party. “Now that Obama is the likely winner, the question is whether his party’s democratic way of choosing its nominee will hurt his chances against Sen. McCain in the fall,” Wolfe wrote. “(But) the deep divisions that emerged…will not necessarily produce a divided party … Most observers agree that by the fall, those who supported the (Democratic) loser will vote for the winner.”

One thing is certain. The protracted Obama/Clinton struggle has brought more young and first-time voters into the political process and generated huge fundraising totals for both candidates, much of it over the Internet. Here in Nevada, a record number of party members participated in the January caucuses. Although major party registration is evenly divided in our state, 114,000 Democrats turned out for the caucuses as opposed to 44,000 Republicans. Let’s call it the Obama Factor.

Washington Post staff writers Jon Cohen and Dan Balz believe that the country’s gloomy mood will translate into support for the Democrats at the polls in November. “Americans are gloomier about the direction of the country than they have been at any point in the last 15 years,” they wrote, “and Democrats hold their biggest advantage since 1993 as the party better able to deal with the nation’s main problems.”

THE REPUBLICANS

Nevertheless, Sen. McCain is running neck-and-neck with Sen. Obama in the latest Washington Post/ABC polls. Although a recent poll shows that voters favor McCain by a 71-18 percent margin on the vital question of executive experience (the commander-in-chief question), Obama wins by a 59-29 percent margin on the issue of who would bring real change to Washington. Overall, Obama leads McCain 51-44 with a 3 percent margin of error, which makes the race a virtual tossup.

In recent weeks Republican candidates have lost special elections for House seats in conservative districts in Illinois, Louisiana and Mississippi. “These races … were in the heart of the Bible Belt,” said GOP Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, adding that those “waiting for Democrats to fumble the ball … fail to understand the deep-seated antipathy toward the president, the war (in Iraq), gas prices, the economy (and) foreclosures …” Ouch!

According to the Post, veteran GOP warhorses like former congressmen Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay “have been issuing calls to arms to their former troops,” but have been unable to agree on a future agenda for their party. While Gingrich has offered specific proposals for reforming a bloated federal government, DeLay has called for a new and dramatic agenda that would energize the party’s conservative base. However, his right-wing agenda is unlikely to be adopted by McCain, who is reviled by conservatives for being a moderate maverick who does business with Democrats.

And for his part the Democrats’ favorite villain, former White House Senior Adviser Karl Rove, now a Fox News analyst, advised McCain “to press a reform agenda full of sharp contrasts with the Democrats.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Rove opined that “McCain and Republicans will prevail only if they convince voters that there are profound consequences at stake in Iraq, and that more and better jobs will follow from the GOP’s approach of lowering taxes, opening trade and ending (congressional) earmarks.” Well Karl, good luck with that Iraq talking point because if

McCain continues to follow Bush’s failed Iraq policy, he will lose in November.

As much as I respect McCain and his heroic service to our country, there is no way he can defeat Obama if his candidacy is perceived as President Bush’s third term, which is exactly how the Democrats will portray him in the general election campaign. If he runs on Iraq, McCain will be seen as a George Bush clone while the charismatic Obama can claim to be the candidate of the future. Remember, you read it here in June.

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.