McCain Needs to Pick VP Nominee Sooner Rather Than Later

Posted July 21, 2008 at 6:21pm

Over the weekend, there was public speculation that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) might announce his vice presidential selection on the same day as Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) acceptance speech.

[IMGCAP(1)]That would be the political equivalent of putting C-SPAN up against the Super Bowl and expecting ratings.

Let’s face it. McCain could parachute into the Broncos’ stadium with his new running mate, and the media would relegate his announcement to “in other political news yesterday.” This trial balloon, if it is a trial balloon, is a nonstarter.

His campaign already tried a direct assault on Obama’s oratorical skills the night Obama cinched the nomination. They’re still taking flak over that decision and the color green.

The timing and choice of the running mates, however, is one of the more interesting strategic decisions facing both campaigns. While who they select is important, in politics, timing, as the old line goes, is everything.

For Obama, the longer he can delay the announcement, the better off he is. Obama knows his issue positions are not in tune with the country. That’s a fact borne out in polling data showing the country is still center-right.

Obama can claim to be a centrist and even change his views to move in that direction, but any objective review of his legislative record and the positions he espoused during the primaries show him to be far left of center.

Until now, most of the media focus has been on process. It has centered on his oratorical skills, his wife, his racial identity, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Obamamania, his biography, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and the VP choice. All process, no issues.

Once he chooses a running mate, however, the biggest process question will have been answered, and Obama might actually have to talk about issues in a substantive way. From a strategic point of view, the longer Obama can delay that moment and continue to talk, albeit effectively, in generalities about change, he takes time off the clock and puts McCain at a disadvantage.

For McCain, the debate over his choice of running mate is a distraction. The sooner he picks his VP candidate, the better, for several reasons. First, it lets McCain get back to talking about the issues, where he is strategically far better positioned than Obama.

McCain ought to ramp up his rhetoric on the differences between his views, which are center-right, and Obama’s leftist doctrine. McCain won’t win this election on style points, but he can win on substance.

Second, choosing a running mate doubles the number of official spokesmen for the campaign. This might seem a silly argument were it not for the fact that the national media coverage of Obama has been so excessive.

The Tyndall Report, a media watchdog Web site, found that since Obama won the nomination in June, he has gotten 114 minutes on the network evening news broadcasts to McCain’s 48. The weekly news magazines have given Obama twice as many covers.

McCain has made three foreign trips in recent months. Not only were the Big Three anchors uninterested in accompanying him, the network news coverage of the visits was minimal, particularly when compared to Obama’s weeklong media extravaganza. To doubters, I commend Howard Kurtz’s excoriating review of the media’s “imbalanced” coverage of Obama on CNN’s “Reliable Source” last Sunday.

Finally, naming his VP choice now moves McCain’s campaign beyond the unhelpful debate about the base and whether his running mate will appeal to the most conservative voters out there. The discussion ought to be focused on who can best address the issues that concern the vast majority of voters.

If McCain hopes to appeal to the kind of broad base he will need to defeat Obama, his running mate should bring experience in economic issues, such as how to create jobs and spur economic growth while keeping taxes low. Rudy Giuliani and former House Member-U.S. Trade Representative-Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman are good examples of possible choices who can talk about economic issues with credibility and also reach out to the center, where the election will be won or lost.

For McCain, much of the VP speculation has focused on two criteria — age and mollifying the base. His VP announcement gives him the opportunity to put the base argument to rest and take back the No. 1 issue for most voters: the economy.

Obama’s lack of experience in foreign policy has received media attention. His equal lack of experience in economic matters has not. Polls indicate Obama’s strength on economic issues has more to do with an unpopular Republican president (or a negative environment for the GOP) than either his economic proposals or any personal expertise.

McCain, who has spent 25 years dealing with the country’s economic problems, can claim far more experience on his worst day than Obama on his best. Obama’s thin record has called into question his qualifications to be commander in chief; the same skepticism ought to apply to his credentials to serve as economist in chief.

McCain’s VP selection gives him a media-intensive forum to outline his plans for the economy and change the debate. The sooner that discussion begins, the better.

David Winston is president of the Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.