What can John McCain do about news of a "passion gap" breaking out between his supporters and Democrats energized by Barack Obama? And how can McCain plug the near-constant stream of sniping at his campaign strategy from conservative pundits? While some on the right appear to think drilling for oil could prove an inspiring rallying call, many others continue to prescribe further distancing from President Bush and the damaged Republican brand.
But David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter credited with coining the phrase "axis of evil," begs to differ. He thinks Republicans simply need to buck up and start supporting McCain. "He is one of the most profoundly appealing personalities of politics in the last generation," he said. "The election may wind up being less a referendum on McCain than on the Republican Party. It won't be so much a test of his leadership than their followership."
The former Bush scribe warns McCain not to listen to those calling on him to take one kind of drastic action or another in order to make immediate gains in national polls -- disputing both the notion that the Arizona Republican needs to beat up on the president or make an immediate about-face and support drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
"He doesn't need to beat up on Bush, and it's bad form anyway," Frum said. "And McCain can not afford to be pushed into utter disregard for environmental issues [on drilling]. ... The whole point is that McCain stops being McCain the moment he starts reinventing himself at every turn."
More broadly, Frum believes this particular election is less likely to be be influenced by such marginal positioning corrections. "Unlike 2000, this is not a very tactical election," Frum said. "In 2000, campaigns mattered a lot. Gore had to make one decision: embrace Clinton or repudiate him. In retrospect, it's clear that either one of those strategies would have worked. If he had repudiated him, and said, 'I'm a decent guy,' he would have held West Virginia and Tennessee. Or, if he embraced Clinton and run as an economic centrist and good party man, he would have won Florida. But he couldn't decide and he did both. So he got the benefits of neither approach and the negative consequences of both.
"Then there are elections like this one which are being decided on the big facts: voter economic dissatisfaction, versus voter uneasiness about the utterly untested candidate being offered by the Democrats."
Still, Frum admits that sometimes events are simply beyond any nominee's control. "This is an election when the status quo presidential incumbent party faces challenges," he said. "One of the most important things you can do in politics, I think, is accept the limits of what a politician can do to change the underlying facts of the election. Sometimes you run the best possible campaign you can run, and you can still be the victim of adverse factors."
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