Campaigns/Elections

No Passion for McCain

But fear of Obama may suffice across South

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Take a look at any early electoral map projection. You will see a solid chunk of red in most states of the Confederacy. Such projections are primarily grounded on historical performance—and as the small print always says—may not reflect future returns. Add in the wrinkle of the Bob Barr candidacy and the old rules might look archaic.

The problem for John McCain starts with his lack of popularity among Southern conservatives. He is respected, but not beloved by supporters. This contrasts sharply with the frenzy Barack Obama generates, as evidenced by his resounding primary wins across the South, none more impressive than his May 6th victory in North Carolina, where Obama pulled in nearly 900,000 of almost 1.6 million Democratic votes. In November 2004, John Kerry, with a former North Carolina senator on his ticket, only totaled 1.5 million votes in the state, losing to Bush-Cheney's 1.9 million.

There are two schools of thought on what these numbers mean. First, it is argued that Obama has basically maxed out his possible new voter total in North Carolina and across the South. Combined with moderate voters reassessing his candidacy and fatigue among his supporters, this would wash out any modest gains in new Obama votes between now and the general election. This view seems doubtful given the energy Obama generates, which puts me in the second camp; those who believe that Obama, as the official presidential nominee of Democratic Party, will touch off a massive get out the vote effort across the South.

If the latter unfolds, the McCain campaign will then have to accelerate efforts to try to peel off white votes from Obama and woo former Hillary Clinton supporters, plus an agressive get out the vote effort among Republicans. The latter would be hard, and in part explains the downright loopy run on "one term pledge" ideas for McCain.

Evangelical voters with their hearts set on, say, a Huckabee presidency/rapture would be free to vote McCain with a clear conscience in 2008. Think of it as political four-year ARM. Voters can remake the terms in 2012, guaranteed. In effect, this is an attempt to turn lack of enthusiasm for McCain into a strategic asset—lease him for four years, not eight.

But even with this gimmick, the lack of enthusiasm for McCain remains. Former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett recently told me that his fellow Tar Heel Republicans are simply not moved by McCain. He pointed out that the perception that North Carolina is a lock for any GOP presidential candidate overlooks that for years it was Jesse Helms supporters who were supplying the underlying campaign energy—energy that is long gone.

Into this vacuum strides freshly minted Libertarian Party banner carrier Bob Barr. The former Georgia congressman isn't exactly a household name in the region, but neither is he an unknown, owing in part to his TV appearences and frequent spots on talk radio in Atlanta and Charlotte. Might he provide someplace for disgruntled conservatives—particularly fiscal conservatives and opponents of federalizing every known public policy issue—to land in November? Perhaps. Particularly if McCain devolves into a single-issue "patriotism and torture" candidate, as presaged by the head of Georgia GOP the other day.

Referring to McCain's stint as an abused prisoner of war in Vietnam, Georgia Republican Party chairwoman Sue Everhart declared, "John McCain is kind of like Jesus Christ on the cross."

However, McCain's actual saving grace may be Obama. Conservative voters otherwise disgusted with the senator from Arizona on campaign finance, entitlements, taxes, or illegal immigration imagine a soft-on-terror Obama presidency and recoil from even casting a vote for Barr.

"Any vote not for McCain is essentially a vote for Obama," says Clay Johanson, to the easily imagined sound of Barr's LP opponents hissing and groaning. Johanson, a 39-year old technical consultant from Charlotte, is precisely the voter McCain needs to come out in order to carry his supposed red base in South—a young, techie Republican not particularly enamored of John McCain.

Should this view hold sway on Election Day, one of the oldest rules in American politics will stay in force—voters without anything to vote for can usually find something to vote against.

Jeff Taylor writes from North Carolina.