McCain runs strong as Democrats battle on

Why is this man smiling?

Arizona Sen. John McCain could understandably be scowling: He could face a more difficult political landscape than any presidential candidate in a generation.

Only 39% of Americans have a favorable view of the Republican Party he represents, the latest USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows. A record 63% say the Iraq war he defends was a mistake. The disapproval rating for President Bush, the incumbent McCain has embraced, has hit 69%, the most negative assessment of any president since Gallup began asking the question 70 years ago.

Yet in what seems to be the most promising election for Democrats since 1976 — when the aftermath of the Watergate scandal opened the door for Democrat Jimmy Carter to win the presidency — the USA TODAY/Gallup Poll shows the presumptive Republican presidential nominee within striking distance of either Illinois Sen. Barack Obama or New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Sen. McCain will not be a pushover in Ohio," cautions Ted Strickland, the Democratic governor of one of the nation's most important battleground states. "It will be a hotly contested race."

At least at the moment, McCain's personal qualities — his stature as a Vietnam war hero, reputation as an independent-minded Republican and persona as a strong leader — are trumping the significant policy disadvantages he faces in pursuing a third consecutive term for the GOP in the White House.

The protracted and increasingly bitter rivalry between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination is a boost for McCain, too.

He has stayed competitive by drawing support from unlikely quarters.

One in four voters who say the invasion of Iraq was a mistake back him, as do one in four who disapprove of Bush. In a worrisome sign for Democrats, one in five Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say they'll switch to McCain if the Democrats don't nominate Obama; another one in five say they'll switch if the party doesn't nominate Clinton.

Tim Quinn, 61, of Brewster, N.Y., is an independent voter who calls the invasion of Iraq "a big mistake" and criticizes Bush's actions as president. Even so, he's supporting McCain.

"He has taken unpopular positions over the years, and even though I don't agree with a lot of them, I believe he's a man of character," says Quinn, an IT project manager who was among those surveyed. "He's a man of character while the other two will say whatever it takes to get votes."

A general election many Democrats assumed six months ago would be difficult to lose seems a little less of a sure thing.

At the beginning of the year, many polls showed a generic, unidentified Democratic presidential candidate thumping a generic Republican by close to 20 percentage points.

In the USA TODAY Poll taken April 18-20, however, McCain kept the contest against Obama and Clinton within the survey's margin of error. Obama led McCain 47%-44% among registered voters. Clinton led 50%-44%.

Republicans lined up more solidly behind McCain than Democrats did behind Obama. Nine of 10 Republicans backed the Arizona senator, compared with eight of 10 Democrats who supported the Illinois senator. Each got equal support, 8%, from members of the other party.

They split independents: 46% for Obama, 42% for McCain. (The divide in a Clinton-McCain matchup was similar.)

"Some of it defies the philosophy or ideology of John McCain and gets into John McCain the American hero, John McCain the maverick Republican, John McCain the antithesis of the Democratic and independent voters' stereotypes of Republicans," says Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist based in California. "He looks much stronger in these polls than any other imaginable Republican nominee would be."

USA TODAY combined the responses in nationwide surveys taken over the past two months to get a large enough sample to analyze the demographics of some of McCain's surprising backers: Americans who disapprove of Bush. Those voters, who make up more than a third of McCain's support, presumably would be the first target of a Democratic opponent.

Almost all of them were white, and most were middle-aged. Many were blue-collar workers. Slightly more were male than female. Almost half were independents; one in five were Democrats.

A contradictory coalition?

Shirley Smith of Hollidaysburg, Pa., is a Democrat who didn't vote for Bush and criticizes his tenure, but she likes McCain because he strikes her as honest and straightforward.

"I think he's the best one to be president," the 75-year-old retiree says, though he hasn't moderated her anti-pathy toward his party. "I just don't care for the Republicans," she adds. "They're mostly for the rich people."

The question is whether McCain can hold together that sort of conflicted coalition.

Probably not, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says. The Arizona senator has consolidated the Republican base by emphasizing his party credentials while he has cultivated independent voters by portraying himself as a maverick willing to break with party orthodoxy.

Nearly half of Americans in the USA TODAY survey, 45%, described McCain as "a different kind of Republican."

That's an image he nurtured during a campaign tour last week of the nation's "forgotten places," including stops in Selma, Ala., site of a historic civil rights confrontation, and the Appalachian town of Inez, Ky., where President Johnson launched his administration's War on Poverty.

Standing in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans on Thursday, McCain blasted the Bush administration's faltering response to Hurricane Katrina as "disgraceful," distancing himself from a president he also defends.

"He's been able to present himself both as a party person and as an independent, but that contradiction will get exposed when the Democratic nominee emerges," Greenberg says.

At that point, he says, either the enthusiasm of Republicans will fade, the support of independents will erode, or both.

A poll sponsored by the Democratic National Committee in March tested McCain's standing among undecided voters in 17 swing states. The bad news for Democrats was that it found 59% of them said McCain had some or a lot of appeal. The good news: After giving them "factual information about his record" — designed to raise questions about him — that number dropped, to 44%.

The DNC now attacks McCain's standing as a maverick in a daily barrage of e-mails, including a series labeled the "McCain Myth Buster." They spotlight examples of him changing positions or hewing to the GOP line — for instance, voting against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and now calling for them to be extended.

McCain's high-profile alliances with Democrats, dry sense of humor and coziness with some of the reporters who cover him prompt some voters to assume he has less conservative policy positions than he does. A survey by the political arm of Planned Parenthood in 16 swing states found that 23% of women who support abortion rights and support McCain over Obama said they believed McCain agreed with them on abortion. Eighteen percent said, accurately, that he opposes abortion rights.

"As soon as people know where he stands on the economy, Iraq and health care, support for him drops off dramatically," Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean says.

Even so, Dean acknowledges the focus by Obama and Clinton on each other has delayed Democrats' efforts to target McCain. As the Democratic rivals provide fodder for GOP attacks in the fall, McCain has been able to rest, raise money and get organized.

"We're having a vigorous campaign on our side, and he's getting a complete free ride," Dean says. Given that, he says, McCain's failure to build a lead over his prospective Democratic opponents signals that "he's got big problems."

Combating Bush fatigue

McCain's biggest problem is beyond his control.

The electorate is rattled by the economy's downturn, largely opposed to the Iraq war, weary of Bush and convinced in record numbers that the nation is headed in the wrong direction after eight years of Republican rule.

No political landscape has been so hostile to one side since 1980, an election shaped by oil shocks and the Iranian hostage crisis. That year, Republican Ronald Reagan ousted Carter and Democrats lost control of the Senate.

"I would say that if the debate is about leadership and personal qualities that McCain will do well," says Frank Donatelli, a McCain adviser who was recently installed as deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. "If the debate on the issues side is about the present as opposed to the past, he'll do well. If the debate is only about the past, it'll be more challenging."

Aides describe McCain as a "brand" that is established and trusted by voters, and one Democrats will find difficult to dent.

"People view him as fundamentally different from what they're sick of in Washington, which is partisanship for partisanship's sake," strategist Steve Schmidt says. "The American people view him as his own man."

On the other hand, Dean and other Democrats say McCain offers a sort of third Bush term, which would continue policies toward Iraq, Iran and the economy that voters already reject.

The fundamental question over the next six months could turn out to be this: Does McCain manage to "re-brand" the GOP? Or does the GOP "re-brand" him?

"I'm not happy the way Bush has run the country the last eight years, and I'm afraid that McCain is just going to continue on with the choices that are similar to George Bush's," says Patti Tremmel, 38, a stay-at-home mother from Thornton, Colo., who voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004. She supports Clinton this time.

If the Democrats nominate Obama, though, she'll switch to McCain. "There's too much at stake right now in the country with the economy, health care and the war," she says. "I don't think he (Obama) has enough experience."

On a list of eight positive characteristics, Americans rated McCain more highly than Obama or Clinton on three: as honest and trustworthy, as a strong and decisive leader, and as someone who can manage the government effectively.

His weaknesses were on empathic qualities, including understanding the problems Americans face in their daily lives, and on having a clear plan for solving the country's problems.

McCain's personal story is a powerful asset. As most Americans know, he is an admiral's son who volunteered to serve in Vietnam as a Navy pilot and spent five years as a prisoner of war there. In the USA TODAY poll, two-thirds of Americans said they personally considered McCain to be a war hero. Nearly four in 10 said his military service made them more likely to vote for him; 7% said it made them less likely.

"He's a person who sacrificed for our country," says Neil Thistle, 71, a retired banker from Kenwood, Calif. "To me, that's important."

'The right kind of race'

To defeat McCain in November, Democratic strategists say they need to succeed in depicting him as out of touch with most Americans' daily lives, ill-suited to address the economic challenges they worry about and determined to continue the U.S. engagement in Iraq.

His age, 71, also provides a generational contrast, especially with the 46-year-old Obama. (Clinton is 60.) McCain would be the oldest new president in U.S. history.

For McCain to win in November, Republican analysts say he needs to successfully paint his Democratic opponent as an out-of-the-mainstream liberal who would raise taxes and stumble as commander in chief — that is, candidates in the mold of George McGovern and Michael Dukakis. He'll pitch his long service as invaluable experience.

McCain also will need some help from outside events — that the economy steadies and violence in Iraq subsides, keeping those issues from dominating the election debate.

"The truth of the matter is if the race becomes a race about the issues environment, as opposed to a race about personality and stature differences and ideology, McCain has a real problem," Republican pollster Tony Fabrizio says. "If we're fighting over whose policy is better on the economy as opposed to who's outside the mainstream in America, we've got a problem as Republicans."

The substantive issues not only strongly favor Democrats but also could cast McCain as just another Republican, the factors that make him the underdog for the White House. But if he runs "the right kind of race," Fabrizio says, "I will tell you that John McCain could win in an electoral landslide."