By clinching the Republican nomination in early March John McCain surprised the pundits who widely believed that the Democrats would settle on their nominee long before the Republicans did. This change of dynamic is unexpectedly good news for McCain and the Republicans in a time when they could use some good news. The uncertainty and the increasingly negative campaigning in the Democratic field gives the Republicans a chance to level the playing field in this favorable year for the Democrats.
Some influential strategists like Karl Rove have argued that McCain risks fading from the front pages and that is not a good thing for a Presidential nominee. However getting some breathing room to plan for the future can only benefit McCain. The voters are likely to suffer from Obama/Clinton fatigue if the Democratic race drags on for months. This would make McCain the fresh new thing come November. It is also possible that the Democrats would exhaust some of their donors as well as enthusiasm among the voters while McCain can get new donors and build support by selling his message to the voters.
The other important factor is fatigue. No matter who the candidate is, the Democratic candidate's campaign is likely to be tired from the intense primary season, while McCain and his camp has a chance to relax and enjoy the show. It also gives them a chance to know what works against Obama/Clinton without having to work for it. They also have enough time to research the weaknesses of the Democratic candidates for the general campaign.
More importantly this provides the McCain camp with a wonderful opportunity to organize, fund raise, sharpen his message and introduce their candidate to the voters.
John McCain was able to clinch the nomination in a relatively weak Republican field with his current organization. However the disorganized McCain camp would be easy prey for the Democrats especially since they would hit the ground running in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania where they have intensively campaigned. John McCain needs to organize his campaign structure to match that of George Bush in 2004. The Bush camp followed the basic principles like Stick to message discipline, avoid falling prey to common mistakes and have a tight leak proof organization.
McCain should also remember that a healthy distrust of the press never hurt anyone. He has a habit of getting into arguments with the press as well as answer every question they have for him. This has made the press like him but there will always be some reporters who will use his candor against him. McCain needs to be aware of that and keep the press at arm's length.
The biggest advantage that McCain has from the Democratic infighting is money. He is free to raise money from traditional Republican donors as well as attract small online donors. The Democrats would have easily blown millions of dollars attacking each other before the summer ends while McCain has a great chance to increase his bank balance to match the Democrats. This is also the biggest use he has for President Bush. Bush may be unpopular but his fundraising abilities are strong as ever. McCain should take full advantage of this.
Sharpen his message:
John McCain made a mistake by being honest and admitting he does not have a lot of knowledge about economic concepts. He needs to makeup for that blunder and sharpen his domestic and economic message. He has the foreign policy aspect covered but the economic, social and health care messages need to be sharpened and put forth. He should use this time to hire the best economic minds to run that side of his campaign. He will need to have effective answers on the current housing crisis, the social security and medicare fears, the looming recession and rising oil prices.
On a lighter but equally important note, the McCain camp should start using new 'on the campaign trail' stories, jokes and anecdotes. We have heard his jokes about the bridge to nowhere, Clinton's Woodstock museum bill and bear DNA research and they were funny the first 10 times but now he needs new material.
John McCain can use this time to organize his ground game in swing states and open campaign offices in those states. His camp should survey the voters in these states and address their concerns effectively. McCain also has a good chance of winning over Hispanics and his camp should dedicate itself to that cause. He also has ample time to pick his staff and more importantly a running mate that would satisfy the Republican base.
John McCain has a compelling story to tell about his life and career and its a shame most Americans only know a part of it. His courage, compassion and perseverance are inspirational. Barack Obama's inspirational speeches become pale when his words are compared to McCain's actions. McCain should introduce himself to the American people and his campaign should tell his story every chance they get.
In the time the Democrats are busy fighting each other, McCain runs a risk of being yesterday's news. He can reverse that by making TV and radio appearances every chance he gets. He should use this time to be everywhere from Leno to Jon Stewart, from daytime talk shows to Hispanic TV shows.
Winning the Base:
This is also a great opportunity for McCain to win over conservatives. He should make appearances on conservative talk radio as well as evangelical churches. He needs to do all he can to assure conservatives about Supreme Court judges, immigration and tax cuts. However McCain needs to be careful so as to not get carried away with this pandering. He should do it relatively below the radar and not win over conservatives at the expense of independents and moderates. It is a fine line but McCain can manage it.
Moreover a few conservatives being against him will not hurt him as much as one would think. Rush Limbaugh said a few weeks ago that if he wanted to destroy McCain's chances he (Limbaugh) would enthusiastically endorse him and that would drive away the moderates and independents. Thus if McCain does not have every conservative on board, he is at a net advantage.
The Democrats have given John McCain and the Republicans a great opening - question is can he take advantage of it?