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His theme of change had two facets. First, it meant a change in the White House, replacing the failed Bush presidency with a Democratic presidency. Second, it meant a change in the way that Washington worked. Divisive partisanship should be replaced by a more cooperative post-partisanship approach.
Excessive influence of lobbyists in the legislative process should be replaced by a greater concern with the public good. Thus, Obama believed that voters were not only unhappy with the Bush administration but that they were also unhappy with the nature of politics in Washington.
For this theme to be effective, Obama had to link McCain to the failures of the Bush administration. The link was based in part on the simple fact that McCain was the Republican nominee. Even though he was not part of the Bush White House, and even though he did not always support the Bush administration, McCain nevertheless would be linked in the eyes of many voters because he represented the same party as the president.
The Obama strategy was to equate McCain and Bush as much as possible. On the domestic side, Obama proposed: On foreign policy and national security, he favored reducing troop levels in Iraq as quickly as possible and placing more emphasis on winning the war in Afghanistan. The fact that Obama had not been part of the Congress for many years made it easier for him to present himself as an agent of change.
However, it also left him open to the criticism that he lacked the experience to be president. Therefore, part of his campaign strategy was to assure voters that he was capable of handling the job—that he had the knowledge, the judgement, and the temperament to be a successful president.
He relied on just such an effort to capture the Democratic nomination, and he extended that effort into the presidential campaign, especially in the competitive states. One aspect of this effort involved rejecting the public subsidies that were available for his presidential campaign, instead raising his own funds.
He was extremely successful in doing so, which provided him with vastly superior resources to McCain, who accepted public funding. There was criticism of Obama for being the first presidential candidate to reject public funding for the general election, but it did not seem that many voters were troubled by this decision. With his superior resources, Obama was able to target a large number of competitive states, including many that were carried by Bush in , such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, and Virginia.
These financial resources allowed the Democrats to run numerous campaign ads and to fund an aggressive campaign organization in each targeted state. McCain recognized that change was part of the national political mood in and that the Bush administration was extremely unpopular.
Therefore, he emphasized his credentials as someone who would change Washington, and he attempted to distance himself from President Bush as much as possible.
McCain tried to rely on his established image as a Republican maverick to argue that he could work with members of both parties in Congress, pointing to many instances when he had done so during his long career as a senator. He argued that his record proved that he, not Obama, would be better able to provide effective bipartisan leadership. However, his age and his long service in Washington may have led many voters to doubt that he would change Washington very much.
His selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential candidate was designed to emphasize change. Palin was a fresh face on the national scene, and she had a reputation of being able to work well with Democrats in the state legislature during her short tenure as governor of Alaska.
Republican strategists claimed that she was an independent maverick, just like McCain. McCain attempted to distance himself from president Bush by talking about times when he disagreed with the president and by pointing out that he was not part of the incumbent administration in any way. Furthermore, he criticized Obama for trying to link him to Bush, arguing during one debate that if Obama wanted to run against Bush, he should have done so in , when Bush was on the ballot.
However, he found it difficult to criticize the Bush administration too much, as doing so would alienate the Republican base. Perhaps most importantly, McCain argued that he had the experience and maturity to be president, and that Obama did not. Moreover, McCain used his military and political record to argue that he was a dedicated public servant who put his country above his party or his personal interests.
Finally, McCain argued that Obama was too liberal for America. The Democrats held their national convention first, in late August. Clinton exhorted her followers to campaign for Obama.
Obama gave what most observers rated thought was an excellent acceptance speech, which he delivered not in the convention hall but before a large crowd in an football stadium. The party seemed united behind the Obama-Biden ticket. Nevertheless, Obama received only a modest post-convention bounce. Polls taken shortly after the convention showed Obama with a several point lead over McCain. The Repubican campaign followed in early September.
Just prior to the convention, McCain announced that he had selected Alaska governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate. It was a surprise selection.
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