WASHINGTON - For more than a year, Democrats and Republicans have been slugging it out in primary and caucus states as their candidates vied for the party faithful. That focus shifted dramatically last week as Barack Obama pivoted, Democratic mantle finally in place, to come to grips with running against GOP presidential candidate John McCain. Now in their sights is a significant bloc of independent voters who shun party labels and are just now tuning into the unfolding general election drama.
The stakes are huge.
For McCain, the task may be particularly urgent. Republicans have seen their share of the national electorate dwindle from near parity with Democrats four years ago to a 10 to 12 percentage point deficit as an unwelcome war, high gas prices, mounting mortgage foreclosures and President Bush's slumping popularity have exacted a heavy toll on the GOP's standing with voters.
Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, a top electoral strategist for the House GOP leadership, told reporters over breakfast last week that the Arizona senator must “focus like a laser on (independents) to have any shot at winning.”
Davis, who is not seeking re-election this fall, added, “There just aren't enough Republicans out there to carry this thing nationally for us.”
But Davis' assessment does not mean that Obama can coast.
The Illinois freshman senator may have defeated Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York for the Democratic nomination, but their marathon competition illuminated Obama's need for the support of independents to offset weaknesses with certain traditional party constituencies, particularly women, working-class whites and older voters.
“Without independents, it will be almost impossible for either candidate to win,” said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan-based pollster, who noted that in tight races, “Independents are what makes the day.”
Some pollsters estimate that up to one-third of the electorate is made up of independents, but other experts such as Candace Nelson say the correct figure is closer to 10 percent when voters who “lean” Democratic or Republican are excluded. Identifying independent voters is made even more confusing by a hodgepodge of state laws governing voter registration and establishing criteria for who can vote in party primaries and who can't.
Nelson, a political scientist at American University who has studied independent voters, said, “They are the least likely to pay attention to politics, least likely to be engaged in the political process.”
That may pose a particular challenge to Obama, a relative stranger to many independents compared to McCain, a 25-year Washington veteran who won the hearts of many of these voters by campaigning as a maverick in losing a bid for the GOP nomination to Bush eight years ago.
Obama's problems were underscored last month when a dozen independent voters gathered at the University of Virginia to discuss the campaign with Democratic pollster Peter Hart in a session sponsored by the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Their comments about McCain were largely accurate. On the other hand, images of Obama were skewed, with several asserting incorrectly that he is a Muslim - a claim that others did not challenge. One participant declared - again in error - that Obama was sworn in as senator using the Koran. Obama is a Christian.
With a few exceptions, most panel members indicated that the campaign up to that point hadn't interested them. However, a substantial majority told Hart that Obama's association with his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., was one of the campaign developments that caught their attention.
Apparently with Wright's inflammatory indictments of America in mind, William Mawyer, 72, a retired insurance man and McCain supporter, said, “I can't help but feel that Obama has to have accepted some of, incorporated some of Reverend Wright's rhetoric.”
Asked for a word or a phrase to describe Obama, Danny Tawney, 41, an operations manager of a construction company, said, “I don't think he likes the country.”
Obama criticized Wright's remarks, then severed his ties with his pastor and, eventually, with his church as well.
Later, Hart said: “At the heart of all of this is the fact that the Obama campaign has been hearing one set of voters who are overwhelmingly positive and telling you, 'We believe.' With the independent voters, there is a sense of disbelief and skepticism and an uncertainty about who he is and what he would be like as president.”
There were also storm warnings for McCain.
Bob James, 51, a general manager of a restaurant, told Hart: “I keep looking at McCain, and I fear, well, it's four more years. You know, and I think with any Republican in there I would feel the same way. I definitely would like to see change.”
Dick Bennett, a nonpartisan pollster for the American Research Group, summed up McCain's problem succinctly: “George W. Bush.”
“The big problem for McCain and the Republicans right now is that independent voters look like Democrats now. From the war to the economy, they answer the questions now almost the same way as Democrats do. That's the value of the Democratic nomination for president,” Bennett said.
That explains why McCain, in a speech to a rally in Louisiana last week - the same night that Obama claimed the Democratic nomination - underscored his differences with Bush over the war, climate change, government spending and torture. McCain also described Obama as dangerously inexperienced, particularly in national security.
A day later, Obama delivered a strongly pro-Israel speech before a crowd packed with supporters of that country. It was a blatant pitch for Jewish votes but also an attempt to dispel any notions that he might harbor Muslim allegiances. Political experts say that he is only beginning to tackle an urgent and delicate task.
“Democrats make a mistake if they think that because they've done this whole primary thing that the electorate as a whole has tuned into all of this. They really just started,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion. “A few things have popped through - one of which is the whole Reverend Wright issue - about who Obama is.”
Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida, suggested that McCain will have to walk a fine line in appealing to independents, who are thought to admire mavericks.
“His maverick streak in a state where you had a Bush as governor didn't wear well with conservatives,” said MacManus, referring to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. “They just thought McCain had abandoned the president.”