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Is McCain a Different Kind of Republican?

Sen John McCain (R-Ariz.) takes the stage to deliver a speech to supporters near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., April 21, 2008. (Getty Images)

By Dan Balz
As Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continue their battle for the Democratic nomination, John McCain is embarked this week on a tour designed to persuade the country that he is "a different kind of Republican."

The intensity with which his advisers have promoted the goal of his tour of "forgotten places" says much about the deterioration of the Republican Party's brand, as well as McCain's strategy for winning the White House.

What McCain and his advisers see is a landscape far more hostile than President Bush encountered four years ago. On Election Day 2004, Bush's reelection campaign, in part through extraordinary efforts to turn out their voters, succeeded in achieving parity in the composition of the electorate. Exit polls that day showed that 37 percent of voters were Republicans, 37 percent were Democrats and 26 percent were independents.

But over the past two years, the GOP has been bleeding voters. Polls over the past months have shown declining percentages of Americans identifying themselves as Republicans. In Pennsylvania, there has been a huge shift away from Republicans toward the Democrats in the last year. Democrats have gained more than 300,000 registered voters and Republicans have lost more than 70,000. Independent voters tilt far more in the direction of Democrats than they did four years ago.

The other measures that underscore McCain's challenge are generic ballot tests, whether for president or Congress races. In both cases, an unnamed Democrat easily defeats an unnamed Republican, whether for the White House or the House. To the extent that the general election is a choice between the two parties, McCain is at a huge disadvantage.

That means the base-driven strategy that worked so well for Bush in 2004 is no longer an option for the Republican nominee in 2008. Bush's goal in 2004 was to register and then turn out more Republicans while slicing off pieces of the Democratic electorate, such as Hispanics. McCain's goal must be free himself to the extent possible from becoming a generic Republican in hopes of attracting independents and some more conservative Democrats who might recoil at some of the liberal policies of Obama or Clinton.

McCain's tour this week began Monday in Selma, Ala., where he extolled the courage of civil rights marchers who were beaten bloody there in 1965, and from there he rode a bus through the rural Black Belt of the state. His tour will take him to economically hard-hit Youngstown, Ohio, to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans and to Appalachia, which has symbolized the intractability of rural poverty for decades.

The Arizona senator is not the first to try to persuade voters that he is a different kind of Republican. That was an underlying message of Bush's 2000 campaign -- as he sought to draw a sharp distinction between his politics and those of the Newt Gingrich and his House Republican brigades, who had worn out their welcome with voters during the latter stages of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Bush got to the White House in part because he styled himself as a "compassionate conservative" and a uniter, in contrast to the hard-charging, hard-edged and often confrontational conservatism of Newt Gingrich and his followers.

In his 2000 campaign, Bush went out of his way to campaign in Hispanic areas and to appeal to African Americans to give him a look. In the end, Bush proved to be the most polarizing president in U.S. history, his party is in decline and McCain must define himself as something different from that status quo Republicanism.

If anyone can claim to be a different kind of Republican, it is probably McCain, but not necessarily in all the ways he is projecting this week. His first stop may have been Selma, but earlier this month, when he traveled to Memphis for the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., he apologized for originally opposing making King's birthday a state holiday in Arizona.

Nor has McCain been closely identified with efforts to rejuvenate the economies of hard-hit areas -- or with economic issues at all. He can touch down in places like Youngstown to draw attention to conditions and to speak sympathetically about what workers there have gone through and are still going through. But it may take considerable work over many months to demonstrate a true commitment to their agenda, as other Republicans have learned to their frustration.

The ways in which McCain is a different kind of Republican have been clear for many years -- and they are the reason why he has faced skepticism among those in the GOP base. His maverick style, his willingness to work cooperatively with Democrats, his occasional deviation from Republican orthodoxy, his willingness to compromise, his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform -- all paint a portrait of someone not cut from the traditional party mold.

Those are attributes that have made McCain competitive with both Obama and Clinton in early general election match-ups. But in asking Americans to view him as a different kind of Republican, he faces an electorate that may believe it has this pitch before, from President Bush.

For better and worse, McCain is a different kind of Republican. But he will carry the burden of a damaged brand all the way through to November.

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 22, 2008; 2:05 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton , John McCain  
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