Financial crisis seen tilting race against McCain

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - As the credit meltdown became a full-blown crisis, it wasn't just a nightmare on Wall Street. It also was one of the worst things that could have happened to John McCain's presidential candidacy.

When times are bad, voters often choose to throw the bums out, and McCain's party is in the White House. On top of that, economics has never been McCain's strength, and some of his responses - calling the fundamentals of the economy sound one day and proposing a commission to study the problem while the financial system teetered on the brink of collapse - seemed less than sure-footed.

Polls this weekend are flashing the latest changes in the '08 contest, which has swung back to Barack Obama. The Democrat leads McCain by six percentage points in the latest Gallup Poll Daily tracking survey, after trailing at the start of the week.

The abrupt shift in what campaign veterans are calling the race of a lifetime underscores how external events can overturn the shrewdest strategy and make the difference in a highly competitive contest.

Obama has regained the advantage at a key juncture. Starting this week, the candidates and their running mates will meet in a series of four televised debates. Strategists on both sides say they could decide the election.

"The debates are going to be huge," said Ed Goeas, a Republican pollster, who contends either man can lock in a win after the last debate in mid-October.

Heading into those encounters, Republicans fret that the financial crisis has reinforced a devastating link between McCain and the economic policies of President Bush, whose job disapproval rating has just matched the all-time worst for any president in the history of the New York Times' poll.

Some Democratic strategists, meantime, argued that renewed focus on pocketbook issues could not come at a more opportune moment for Obama.

These Democrats, sharply critical of Obama behind the scenes, fault him for jousting with McCain and Sarah Palin over who would be more likely to change Washington rather than focusing on the economic concerns of independent swing voters.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a top Obama supporter, put it more gently when he said the financial crisis may have signaled a fundamental change.

"It is indeed a turning point," the Baltimore Democrat said. "It has brought a very significant jolt to the American people, and I think it has reminded them that who we have in the White House can have a direct effect on your immediate future and perhaps on the rest of your life."

That said, he agrees Obama "needs to be talking about the economy much more. ... He's got to show people how he will help, because people are very, very insecure."

It is advice the congressman said he gave directly to Obama during a recent conference call.

"I told him he's got to go back to looking voters in the eye and telling them, 'I'm with you,' " said Cummings, who co-chairs the campaign in Maryland. Obama, he added, needs to offer solutions to voter fears about losing a job or their house or whether the bailout of an insurance giant might keep them from collecting insurance when a relative dies.

Obama's ability to maintain his new edge in the polls is something even the wisest guru can't know for certain. It is, at best, an educated guess, like forecasting where the stock market is headed - and as recent events have shown, the Dow Jones average and the Gallup poll seem to be tightly linked.

Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of Bush's re-election in 2004 and now an independent analyst, says the financial crisis could reset the campaign to the Democrat's advantage.

"The real things that could adjust the race are outside events like what happened this week that cause people to say, 'Wow, we really have a sad economy, and the Republicans really haven't been doing anything to deal with it,' " Dowd said.

McCain wants the election to be about foreign policy and an overseas crisis "where the phone rings at 3 a.m," said Dowd. But if the election is framed around the economy, "McCain knows that's where Barack has the advantage."

For months, voters have indicated that the economy was their top concern, and the financial crisis merely "underlines and bolds it," he added.

Until recently, McCain, riding the Palin surge and a solid convention bounce, seemed to have the upper hand. But some of his comments, as the crisis deepened, drew criticism from his own backers.

On the day that Wall Street investors suffered their biggest loss since the 9/11 attacks, McCain said the nation's economic fundamentals were "strong." An economist might approve of the statement, but it seemed to put the candidate at odds with many voters.

Republican pollster David Hill said the financial crisis could hurt McCain in places, such as closely contested Florida, where older retirees will be unsettled by volatility in the stock market and its potential impact on their lifestyle. But those votes might go into the undecided category, rather than to Obama, he said, and McCain can win them back if he's able to make the case that he's "the mature, steady hand on the tiller" in a turbulent economic time.

McCain lashed out at what he called corrupt financial manipulators and reckless behavior by Wall Street firms, while arguing that the Federal Reserve needed to get out of the corporate bailout business. He also called for a new federal agency that would lend money to shaky financial institutions.

Obama expressed general support for the bailout , without offering a specific remedy of his own. He insisted that he was "less interested at this point in scoring political points than I am making sure that we have a structure in place that is sound and is actually going to work."

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