To a Florida dinner gathering, Obama has paved way for McCain presidency

Posted in United States | 06-May-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

Barack Obama

NICEVILLE, Florida: If only 27 percent of America's voters have positive opinions of the Republican Party, and the GOP is less trusted to fix the economy than the Democrats, how in hell is it going to elect a president in November?


Down here, where George W. Bush got elected and re-elected with scores of 70 percent plus - and old colonels, the Christian right, and convinced conservatives live a kind of wary symbiosis - their combined wisdom says John McCain will beat Barack Obama because Obama has become unelectable.

"Thank God," one of those retired colonels said last week at a pasta dinner with five Republican friends and a visitor. Amused to think of themselves being portrayed as part of the American right wing's collective belly of the beast, they accepted a trade of anonymity for frankness.

Synopsis: Tuesday night's Democratic primary results would make no difference in the outcome. Obama would be the Democratic nominee. McCain would beat him in turn. The miserable economy, the war in Iraq, Bush's unpopularity? Sure, but:

For these conservatives, white and middle-aged, Obama has transmogrified before their eyes from a remarkable prestidigitator into a divine target.

For the Red Neck Riviera of Florida's Panhandle (or the Emerald Coast in the more genteel vocabulary of the tourist brochures) Obama has become so totally exposed - as a leftist, an elitist out of touch with vast segments of the white majority, a dubious healer saddled with disreputable friendships and unknown debts and obligations - that the colonel could say "McCain is seven strokes ahead on the back nine," and the presidency is in Republican reach.

Let Hillary Clinton keep softening Obama up. No worries there about an eventual contender. "She's got more negatives than Bush himself," exclaimed a woman in the group.

Last week, the local newspaper, The Northwest Florida Daily News, caught the spirit of the exercise in its Spout Off column, where nameless, admonishing readers prod their neighbors. Sample:

"If you support the policies and character of McCain, please drive with your headlights on during the day. If you support Obama or Hillary, please drive with your headlights off at night."

It did not reach the sanctity of newsprint, but another Spout Off contributor made the also-rans on the newspaper's Web site with the suggestion that for "a balanced ticket" Obama ought to make David Duke, the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, his vice presidential candidate.

This is not the approach of the GOP. But last week, Tim Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, whose focus is assisting candidates for Congress, seemed to reflect the Panhandle's sense of opportunity.

In a change of judgment, Cole said Republicans would rather run against Obama than Clinton at the head of the Democratic ticket. Obama, he said, "is by any description very liberal, to the left of Hillary Clinton, in a center-right country. That is very, very helpful to us."

But how does that work against the polling that decimates the Republican Party in general, and paints it as less worthy of trust than the Democrats on the nation's prime economic concerns? Add to that a score that portrays the Democrats, a 45 to 43 margin, as more deserving of confidence on Iraq, too.

Here is how: look further. Parties apart, according to last week's Rasmussen Reports polls, when it comes to trust, McCain is preferred over either of the Democrats on the economy, Iraq, national security or taxes.

Obama registered as weaker opposition than Clinton to McCain on the economy and national security.

This reasoning, dominant in Niceville, follows: whack Obama now since, minus a complete meltdown, he still looks sure to win the nomination.

As for McCain's association with Bush - Obama frequently mentions them in the same breath - the former navy pilot and prisoner of war has done a better job in distancing himself from the president (whose 27 percent approval rating exactly matches the GOP score) than Obama has from his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

McCain has a more activist attitude than Bush on climate change, has denounced the administration's ambiguity on the use of torture, called its leadership on the 2005 Katrina hurricane disaster in New Orleans "disgraceful," and blamed former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for the decisions that led to Iraq's failures - all of which does not necessarily make him a hero to Niceville's own straight-talkers.

Frank, a displaced New Yorker whose career took him to Texas and then here, said there was something "rigid" about McCain, even though he would vote for him for lack of a better choice.

For him, Obama showed his "naïveté and inexperience" in calling for a "withdrawal from Iraq in six months."

Is race playing a role? Frank said, "Race will be a significant factor. People won't say it, but it's so." He was silent for a moment, and then said: "McCain will be elected."

The retired colonel, who occasionally sees the world as if it were a golf course, jumped back in.

"Tiger Woods is a genius. He is revered. He is above race. But we've learned Obama is not Tiger Woods. If you paid attention to what Reverend Wright said about Obama, then you heard him described as a lightweight, a guy Wright believed had the reflexes of a pol.

"That famous speech in Philadelphia about race? Wiped out now. What Obama can't deliver ever again, apart from talks and promises, is the certainty he's his own man."

Which, in Niceville's calculation, leaves John McCain. If he is in a statistical dead heat with the two Democrats for the presidency, according to a Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll last week, its results also say Americans identify with McCain's values by 54 to 35 percent margin.

Voters are split evenly on Clinton 46-46. As for Obama, 46 percent of the voters do not share his values, and 45 percent do.

That is essentially what they understand in Niceville. They make no claim to celestial insight here, but on America and who has got a safe pair of hands to run it, they think they are quick to catch the country's drift.