Marathon campaign is taking its toll

Democrats fear growing fractures; McCain facing a money gap

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / April 27, 2008

WASHINGTON - As the presidential campaign continues its painful, costly march toward the nominating conventions, Republicans and Democrats are in rare political agreement on the state of the race: Hillary Clinton is in trouble.

And so is Barack Obama.

And so is John McCain.

And so are both the Democratic and the Republican parties, which are each dealing with fractured electorates that could bolt to the other party or stay home in disgust this November, handing a default victory to the other side.

Republicans are salivating over the very public - and sometimes personal - sparring between Democratic contenders Obama and Clinton as the two fight down to the final primaries for the right to face McCain in November. Once hoping for a Clinton victory in the primaries, Republicans now say the battle-scarred Obama is also looking like an increasingly appealing target, wounded by primary season attacks on his patriotism and his association with a firebrand preacher.

But while McCain happily travels around the country campaigning for a nomination he has already sewn up, problems loom for the GOP as well. Republican fundraising has been weak, veteran GOP congressmen and senators are retiring in droves, and many analysts predict the Republicans could lose seats in both chambers of Congress this November.

In addition, ideological divisions within the Republican party have kept McCain from unifying the party behind his candidacy, leading some Republicans - who controlled the House, Senate, and the White House as recently as 2006 - to worry that they will emerge from November's contests with control of neither the executive nor the legislative branches.

While Republicans profess new confidence that they can beat the Democrat in November after the wounding primary season, they broadly acknowledge that McCain still has some mending to do with the conservative wing of the party. Even though McCain has already secured the GOP nomination, 16 percent of Pennsylvania Republicans voted for Representative Ron Paul last Tuesday, and 11 percent for former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee.

"When a quarter of primary voters cast their votes for someone else, there's clearly work to be done," said GOP consultant Dan Schnur.

Halfway through a critical election year, neither party boasts a united rank-and-file membership, and both are facing squabbles among party leaders.

Democrats are enmeshed in an increasingly nasty fight for the nomination, and superdelegates are squirming under pressure from party leaders to choose by early June.

"Nobody wants the superdelegates to have a deciding" role in the nomination, said Representative Barney Frank, a Newton Democrat who has endorsed Clinton.

Meanwhile, Michigan and Florida Democrats are still fighting to get their convention delegates seated, despite the fact that both broke DNC rules and moved their primaries to January. The mess is exasperating Democrats, who fear that the wrangling could alienate voters in those two crucial states in the fall.

"People don't want to see us having food fights in public," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant not working for a presidential candidate.

The Republicans - while watching the Democrats' political writhing with glee - have serious problems of their own.

The House and Senate prospects are bleak: Having already lost a safe GOP seat in a special election to replace former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert in Illinois, the Republicans are facing some daunting math this fall. Twenty-seven GOP House members and six senators are retiring, giving Democrats a chance to run against untested GOP candidates in many districts that were once safely Republican.

Strengthened by their majority status, Democratic congressional committees have far out-raised their GOP counterparts for this fall's election.

So far, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reaped $87 million to help its candidates, compared to $65 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has collected $72 million for its candidates, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has lagged with $39 million.

In addition, individual Republican candidates for the House and Senate have been far out-raised by Democrats.

And while McCain is enjoying a quiet campaign stretch, as the media and voters focus on the volatile Democratic contest, the Arizona lawmaker has not come close to generating the fund-raising might of his Democratic opponents.

In all, McCain has raised a total of $77 million in the campaign, compared to $235 million raised by Obama and $189 million collected by Clinton.

Religious and social conservatives have been critical of McCain, who appears to delight in defying his fellow Republicans on matters ranging from taxes to the environment. His authorship of campaign finance reform legislation alienated key conservative activist groups, which felt their political voices were muffled by laws limiting what they could say in paid television ads.

McCain's support for immigration reform has not only aggravated the GOP base, but threatens to put him in a politically untenable position this fall: while he needs Latino votes to win battleground states in the general election, any mention of his coauthorship of an immigration package giving undocumented immigrants a path to legal residency infuriates anti-illegal immigration forces that make up a critical part of the GOP base.

"On the one hand, he's dogged, justifiably, for his partnership with [Massachusetts Senator Edward M.] Kennedy on last year's amnesty bill," said Bob Dane, communications director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which does not endorse presidential candidates. "He needs to successfully distance himself to make his core happy."

But "the Hispanic vote is critical in these swing states," Dane noted, so "he doesn't want to upset the apple cart."

McCain's opposition to the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2002 has irritated GOP stalwarts such as Americans for Tax Reform, while the conservative Club for Growth greeted McCain's electoral success by bemoaning the fact that the GOP had selected "a candidate at odds with a large portion of its conservative members to be the standard-bearer" of the party.

"Just because the Republican nomination is over doesn't mean the division in the Republican party is over," said Jim Demers, a Democratic activist who co-chaired Obama's primary campaign in New Hampshire. "They just aren't talking about it because the press is focused on the Democratic race. I do believe it still exists."

Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, suggested that some of McCain's woes in uniting the GOP may actually be caused by the Democratic failure to produce a nominee. Once either Clinton or Obama wears the Democratic crown, he said, Republicans will realize what they're up against and align themselves squarely with McCain.

"Either of his opponents becomes the energizer" for the GOP nominee in the fall, Fabrizio added.

Democrats, for their part, are increasingly anxious to resolve the nomination fight, but many point to one benefit of the extended primary season: The party has registered millions of new Democrats, including a half million in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and North Carolina, said DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton.

Those new voters - which Paxton said are likely to come out to vote in November regardless of who wins the nomination - could make the difference in battleground states, she said.

"The interest doesn't hurt. The excitement doesn't hurt," said Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who has endorsed Obama. But if the Democratic campaign is not resolved soon, the party and the candidates will suffer, he said

"The longer it goes, the higher the risk is," Capuano said. "But I don't think we're there yet."

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