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Tussle of two: Opinions vary on battle of McCain vs. Obama

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February 28, 2008
— While the nation’s governors were in Washington from Saturday through Tuesday for their winter meeting, the campaigns of John McCain and Barack Obama accomplished some important political business.

On Saturday night, McCain addressed a fund-raising dinner for the Republican Governors Association, delivering a speech that Mark Sanford of South Carolina, one of the few who has withheld his endorsement from the almost-certain GOP nominee, told me, “got even a right-wing nut like me all fired up.”


Earlier that day, a half-dozen pro-Obama governors huddled with Obama’s staff members and received their assignments to various locations in Ohio and Texas for this pre-primary weekend.


As useful as the governors’ meeting was to the campaigns, the timing was equally provident for political reporters. Between 10 a.m. Sunday and 2 p.m. Monday, Dan Balz of the Washington Post and I did sit-down interviews with seven Democrats and three Republicans, and had corridor conversations with three others.


These are impressive people—realistic, pragmatic and notably less partisan than their Washington counterparts. When we asked Mitch Daniels, the Republican governor of Indiana who is up for re-election this year, if he feared this might be a Democratic year, he said, “By all rights it should be.”


But he quickly added that “the one chance our party might have is with someone like McCain who can compete for the middle.”


Daniels said of Obama, “I’m impressed with his candidate skills, and I expect once he has finished running against Sen. (Hillary) Clinton, he will depart from the Move-On catechism. Why would America vote for a candidate echoing what Sen. Kennedy has been saying for 25 years?”


A second pro-McCain governor, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, cited as the senator’s advantage the fact that “he is the only candidate with both military experience and national security credentials.” While acknowledging that Republicans must adapt their Reagan precepts to a policy environment that has changed dramatically since 1980, Pawlenty argued that “when it goes beyond the uplifting rhetoric, and the public begins to drill down (into Obama’s positions), the numbers will move.”


The Democrats we interviewed were split almost evenly between Clinton and Obama, and the differences in their moods were striking. Clinton supporters Martin O’Malley of Maryland, Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Ted Strickland of Ohio and Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania rest all their remaining hopes on her winning both Texas and Ohio on Tuesday.


Strickland said Clinton would prevail in his state “if it were held now,” because in Ohio the economy and health care are the dominant issues—playing to her strengths.


Rendell was even bolder, saying Clinton is “up 10 or 11 points today, and there’s no way she will lose Pennsylvania” on April 22. “If she wins Ohio and Texas, her margin will be bigger. If she loses, she won’t be running.”


But Granholm said, “I don’t know if she has time to show the personal side I see, the compassion for people. She’s running against a phenomenon.”


And O’Malley, whose state was swept by Obama, said his remaining hopes were sustained by the fact “this race has been full of surprises.”


The Obama governors expressed few doubts about Obama’s nomination and focused on his prospects against McCain. Tim Kaine of Virginia noted that in his state’s recent primary, Obama had “outpolled McCain 2-1 in one of the most heavily military states.” He said he thought Obama could blunt Republican questions about his capacity to be commander in chief by making it a question of judgment, not experience.


Kathleeen Sebelius of Kansas said she thought the McCain-Obama competition would offer “an absolute contrast of past and future.” She said Obama still has to furnish more detail on his policies for health care, energy and the economy, but that his ability to move people “is what is exciting about him.” She likened Obama to her father, John Gilligan, who, as Ohio governor a generation ago, persuaded voters and the Legislature to enact the state’s first income tax, a change no one had thought possible.


But Janet Napolitano of Arizona, while arguing that Obama, as a newcomer to Washington with appeal to independents “can make this a 50-state campaign,” including the Mountain West, reinforced the view of Rendell, Strickland and other big-state Democratic governors that McCain would also have real appeal in their states.


“McCain will be tough, no question,” Napolitano said.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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