Obama's Struggles Give McCain, GOP Hope

Donald Lambro

5/28/2008 12:01:00 AM - Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Barack Obama's general-election prospects are not looking so good lately, as he spins and equivocates his way through the final days of the presidential primaries.

With growing troubles among his party's Jewish voters, the prospective Democratic nominee has been retreating from his not-well-thought-out plan to meet with Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

Obama ran into tough questioning last week during an appearance at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., where Jewish voters were troubled by his intentions to meet, without preconditions, with leaders of rogue nations.

Earlier, in Democratic presidential debates, Obama stuck by his vow to meet with such leaders, despite criticism from Hillary Clinton that he was "naive" and inexperienced in national-security and foreign-policy matters.

Stung by recent attacks from Sen. John McCain for what the Arizonan called "reckless" and "dangerous" seat-of-the-pants policymaking, Obama complained on CNN last week about "this obsession with Ahmadinejad."

McCain's offensive was hurting the freshman senator, according to the GOP's internal polls, and Obama began a hasty retreat. "I would be willing to meet with Iranian leaders if we had done sufficient preparations for that meeting," he said.

Then he backtracked even further, saying he wasn't sure that "Ahmadinejad is the right person to meet with right now."

The hostile questioning at the synagogue only reinforced the sense in Obama's high command that his "ready to meet with anybody" exuberance in the high-stakes world of geopolitical gamesmanship was not playing well with Jewish voters or with the larger electorate, either.

"You talk to any Jewish activists, and they'll tell you he's having trouble with Jewish voters," a prominent Jewish leader told me last week.

"This is a big issue with the Jewish community. Jews are supporting Obama by the smallest percentage since Reagan," said another leader of an Israel advocacy group here.

McCain does not plan to let up his attacks on Obama's weakness on national-security issues. He will be speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in several weeks with plans to "up the ante."

Democratic national-security advisers were troubled, too, by Obama's unorthodox foreign-policy positions.

"I've been critical of Obama on that. Negotiating with dictators is a bad idea, but he would learn that in a year or so," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"Obama is much less experienced than McCain, but he has to worry that people will think he is not ready for the job," O'Hanlon told me.

McCain campaign strategists, citing internal polling, say that Obama is showing broader weaknesses in the larger electorate.

"We're seeing that in state after state, Obama has trouble drawing beyond his own base. His coalition has been secular liberals, young people and blacks. That's proven to be enough in the Democratic primaries, but he's going to have to go beyond that to win the general election," said Frank Donatelli, the McCain campaign's chief liaison at the Republican National Committee.

"He's done poorly in the past two months in every contest he's run outside of those areas," said the former Reagan White House political director.

The strongest manifestation of Obama's problems in the larger playing field is becoming visible among white blue-collar workers in Midwestern and Southern battleground states.

Consider the recent matchups between the two prospective nominees in a Quinnipiac poll in two key swing states that Democrats must carry.

In Ohio, a Democratic-leaning swing state in much economic distress, McCain edges ahead of Obama by 44 percent to 40 percent. In Florida, a state that Democrats are heavily targeting, McCain led by 45 percent to 41 percent.

"Obama is losing the white vote by 14 to 18 points in Ohio and Florida, which is enough to keep him from victory despite overwhelming support from African-Americans," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

McCain strategists readily acknowledge the economy and the war in Iraq posed major political obstacles, but Donatelli says they are convinced that the election will to a large degree turn on "the blue-collar workers in the Midwest." These are the old Reagan Democrats, and they are in play more than at any time since Reagan, despite the downbeat economy.

"Obama is a cultural and social liberal, and he has trouble connecting with these voters. That puts in play a number of blue states McCain has a strong chance to win, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania," he said.

"We feel much better about our chances to win many of the big industrial states in the Midwest," he told me.

Throw in a midyear economic recovery and further troop withdrawals in Iraq by September, and John McCain's chances could look very good, indeed.