Barack Obama doesn’t have the Democratic presidential nomination sewn up, but barring some very unexpected results tonight the odds seem to be moving in his favor. Obama has proved to be a formidable campaigner, as former frontrunner Hillary Clinton can testify. He’s smart, charismatic, inspiring and other than his ties to Antoin Rezko almost entirely untainted by scandal. So how does the GOP run against Obama if he does in fact secure the nomination? I asked that question of John Brabender, Chief Creative Officer and managing partner of BrabenderCox, a leading GOP media firm. His past and present clients include Senators Tom Coburn, David Vitter and Rick Santorum, as well as the Rudy Giuliani for President campaign.
1. Barack Obama has waged a strong campaign against Hillary Clinton. If he wins the nomination, would he be the favorite in the November general elections?
A cursory look at recent presidential elections suggests that the race this fall is going to be very close, regardless of who the nominees are, especially with no incumbent running. In 2000, we had roughly a tie and in 2004 the margin of victory was narrow. Barack Obama is a different type of candidate who brings a lot to the table in terms of electability. In a presidential race, the issues are somewhat secondary to leadership, hope and vision, which seem to be strong suits for Obama. The question becomes whether that’s enough to get him to the finish line against John McCain.
2. But how can a Republican candidate, presumably McCain, campaign against Obama? Unlike the case with Hillary Clinton, there aren’t a lot of negatives?
I watched Obama during the debates. Just like everyone else, I said, ‘This guy is good,’ but he also brings serious problems to the table. If you want to reduce political campaigns to marketing, Obama is a great new product with great packaging and people are anxious to try it, but they don’t yet know whether it’s a product they want to use over and over again. People know McCain. He is Coca-Cola. You might not always want a Coke, but you always know what it’s going to taste like and that it’s good when you’re thirsty. These are turbulent times and the safe pick might be the best pick. The race will be about Obama, not McCain, and we still don’t know a lot about Obama. At some point, he is going to have to defend a pretty liberal record in both the U.S. Senate and especially the Illinois Senate. He hasn’t had to do that in the Democratic primaries, but in a general election, his record could cause alarm to those in the middle. He has not gone through the rigors of a general election campaign, which is very different from a primary. He can say in a Democratic primary that he wants to sit down and talk to leaders in Iran, but Republicans and some in the middle hear that and cringe –are we just going to roll over for countries like Iran and let them build a nuclear bomb? I don’t want to diminish the fact that he is a different kind of candidate, but it’s too early to know whether Americans will see him as the right candidate at the right time.
3. Would Hillary Clinton be an easier opponent?
Yes. Hillary is a known entity with high unfavorables and she motivates the core Republican base. There’s not that same fear about Obama, but part of that is that the base knows so little about him. If you ask people what they think about Hillary, they’ll talk about her health care plan or her husband. If you ask about Obama, they say, ‘I don’t know much about him but I think he’s very charismatic.’ He’s had the luxury so far of being more like a TV personality than a candidate. When he walks into the room, he gives a powerful speech, Oprah is there and everyone waves signs, but at some point that is going to change. He was the underdog and underdogs often get a free pass, but after tonight, he is likely going to be the frontrunner. He’s a charismatic, attractive candidate, and would be formidable in November, but it would be a great mistake to think the general election would unfold like the primary race has so far, and to count out McCain.
4. If Hillary were the nominee, I would assume Republicans would hit her hard, but Obama doesn’t generate the same sort of animosity. How specifically do you run against him?
There are two ways to go after Obama, and you have to factor in McCain’s temperament here. He won’t personally go after Obama, nor will Obama personally go after him. The debates would be similar to the last Democratic debate – there will be strong disagreements, but it will be cordial. They’re not going to embrace each other, but it’s not going to be like the Bush-Gore debates from 2000. McCain will try to attack by making 1,000 small cuts; he’s a master at that. He’ll concentrate on the world we are in today. Russia is becoming an energy superpower, Iran seems to be on verge of getting a nuclear bomb, there’s Iraq, China, Islamic fundamentalists. Who’s going to be tough enough to deal with these threats: a guy whose only full terms were as a state senator from Illinois, or McCain, who has a lifetime of service to the country? That will be a long, drawn out comparison.
5. What’s the second tactic that will be used to run against Obama?
There will be efforts by Republicans in general, not by McCain himself, to say, ‘Wait a minute, do you understand just how liberal Obama is?’ I’m sure there’s been significant research done on his voting record in Illinois and in the U.S. Senate and that will be brought forward. McCain is in the middle of the road on the GOP side and Obama has been in lockstep with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He hasn’t had to worry about that so far because during the Democratic nominating process, the most liberal Democrats are the ones who come out to vote, and his record will appeal to them. But in the general election, voters in battleground states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania could view his liberal record differently.
6. What about the age factor? Does that hurt McCain?
Some people say McCain’s age will be a negative, but it might be one of his biggest assets. When they are side by side, Obama is going to look very young, maybe too young to be president. He’ll look like a kind young man and McCain will look like an elder statesman: That visual works to McCain’s advantage. The less sure Americans feel about their security, the more people will feel better about McCain. Obama has many appealing features, and in many ways, he’s what’s right about America. He shows that anyone can rise up if they’re smart enough and talented enough, but the question is whether he has the experience to lead the country in turbulent times. That’s a huge question mark. McCain is a PC and Obama is Mac. People like the look of Macs but there are a lot more PCs out there. McCain is an extremely safe choice for America and people may decide they can’t afford to do anything but make the safe choice.