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Change vs. Experience All Over Again

By Perry Bacon and Jennifer Agiesta
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Welcome to change vs. experience, Round Two.

Speaking at the fairgrounds here at the start of his economic tour, Barack Obama stood in front a banner on which the word "Change" was spelled out in huge letters, with "That Works for You" in smaller print. But weeks before Obama started his general election campaign, John McCain began to try to cast the Illinois senator as a great speaker who has a thin resume and little experience on national security issues.

Though Hillary Clinton and John McCain are very different political figures, in many ways the Arizona Senator's match-up with Obama will resemble Clinton's.

Clinton ran a television commercial emphasizing that she could handle a national security crisis if she was called at 3 .am.; McCain now has a spot called "Safe." Obama attacked "Washington" as he pitted himself against Clinton; he now attacks "Bush" as he pits himself against McCain.

McCain will have one advantage Clinton didn't: a different electorate.

Like Obama, Democratic primary voters were focused on change. In early January, as voting was getting underway, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found 52 percent of Democratic voters said a "new direction and new ideas" were what they were looking for in a president, compared to 39 percent who said "strength and experience."

The proportions held throughout the primary season, with half of Democratic primary voters in states where exit polls were conducted citing the ability to bring about needed change as their top priority. In a Post-ABC poll last month, 56 percent said "new direction," while 34 percent said "strength and experience." (A small number of voters said "both").

Among all adults, however, the Post-ABC polls reveal a more narrowly divided electorate. Both in January and in May, 47 percent said "strength and experience" was more important while 43 percent said a "new direction and new ideas."

But while that metric helps him, McCain will have an enormous challenge on domestic issues. While Clinton and Obama divided Democrats on who would be better able to handle Iraq and the economy, the gap between Obama and McCain on nearly every domestic issue is huge.

Fifty-nine percent of voters in a recent Washington Post poll said Obama would be better able to bring "needed change to Washington," compared to 29 percent who said McCain would. Obama also had a 20-point edge as the better candidate to handle gas prices; he led by 24 points on health care and 10 points on the economy. Just 32 percent of voters thought the GOP would do the best job dealing with the "main problems" facing the country, compared to 53 percent who cited the Democrats.

McCain, like Clinton, is trying to challenge Obama's mantle as the change candidate. He has repeatedly noted issues like climate change and campaign finance reform where he has differed from his party. Like having lived in the White House for eight years, being a long-time Senator will make this argument difficult to make against the much younger Obama, who has spent little time in Washington.

For Obama, the experience question will again loom. Susan Rice, one of his top foreign policy aides, said in an interview Friday the campaign would press an argument similar to the case it made against Clinton -- that "judgment" was more important than "years in Washington."

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 9, 2008; 6:03 PM ET
Categories:  The Pollster  
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