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Taking the party to Main Street

Times Staff Writers

Speaker after speaker at this week’s Republican National Convention defended small towns from the perceived slights of urban elites. They talked of working people, and ridiculed those with the time to become “community organizers.” They railed against the media, Hollywood and the Washington cocktail circuit.

Cultural affinities, which President Bush played on heavily to paint 2004 Democratic nominee John F. Kerry as elite and out of touch, are now central to the campaign strategy of GOP presidential nominee John McCain.

The Arizona senator appeared to float above the culture wars Thursday night in a nomination acceptance speech that criticized “partisan rancor” and promoted his history of working with Democrats. And he is an unlikely standard-bearer for the forces of family values, given his admissions over the years of his failures as a husband, or for the advocates of small-town living, with his millionaire wife and multiple homes.

But this week’s events demonstrated that McCain’s campaign has settled on its final-stretch strategy to defeat Barack Obama: portraying Republicans as in sync with mainstream America and Democrats as the cultural fringe.

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The most convincing evidence of this development came Wednesday in the star turn by McCain’s vice presidential running mate, Sarah Palin, who cast herself as a symbol of small-town values and a mother whose family experiences “the same ups and downs as any other, the same challenges and the same joys.”

It is a symbol that will now be pitched to middle-class and blue-collar workers, who make up a large share of undecided voters, including many of the white working-class Democrats in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio who are skeptical of Obama.

These are the voters, GOP strategists say, who may be struggling economically, detest President Bush and oppose the Iraq war -- but still may vote based on a visceral sense of which candidate respects their way of life.

“This is going to be a values election,” said U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, a key strategist for national Republicans. “This is going to be almost a replay of 2004 in terms of the cultural alignments.”

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The strategy worked for Bush four years ago. Yet its effectiveness this year is uncertain. Democratic voter registration has surged in several battleground states, and voters worried about the economy say they generally favor Democrats over Republicans. The economy, rather than any cultural issues, consistently ranks highest among voter concerns. But GOP strategists believe that despite those disadvantages, the public remains culturally conservative.

“The electorate is not that different than it was,” said Terry Nelson, a former Bush campaign strategist. “We’re looking at the same kind of states that we were looking at in 2004.”

Still, with McCain having trouble connecting with nonconservative voters, the gathering in St. Paul showed that the script has been tweaked.

Issues such as abortion and gay marriage that helped mobilize core conservatives in 2004 are being de-emphasized to avoid alienating moderate swing voters.

Davis, who represents a moderate district in northern Virginia, said Palin struck the right tone when she “defended small towns and the rural way of life. But you never heard her talk about abortion, the hot buttons that could turn these people off.”

Some Republicans are urging McCain to focus more on the economy, an area that has been a weakness for him and the GOP. They believe that the troubled economy will make middle-class voters more open to the Republican opposition to tax increases.

In his speech, McCain glossed over social issues and focused on values such as honesty and selflessness. Palin folded some of the biggest questions about her record and biography into the campaign’s new cultural narrative.

Her pregnant, unwed teenage daughter and her newborn infant with Down syndrome were presented as symbols of the travails of average families. She talked about the weight of economic policy in terms of her sister, who runs a gas station.

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Criticism from Democrats over her resume -- as the mayor of tiny Wasilla and governor of Alaska for less than two years -- was waved off as carping from elites who don’t respect her middle-class roots.

She said Obama and other Democrats “look down” on her experience as hometown mayor. But she ridiculed Obama’s own resume -- likening his work as a young community organizer to that of a do-nothing, wide-eyed neophyte.

Palin reprised Obama’s gaffe from his primary campaign when he was caught on tape speculating that working-class voters “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion . . . to explain their frustrations.”

Said Palin: “In small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they’re listening and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.”

The cultural attack against Obama is sensitive. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton was accused of exploiting race during the primary by directing to white voters a message criticizing the country’s potential first black president. And Obama has had to respond to false rumors that he is a Muslim -- he is not -- making him perhaps more vulnerable to such arguments than white politicians.

Obama aides said Thursday that they doubted culture attacks would work, particularly when voters want to hear about the economy, healthcare and other pocketbook issues. An anti-elites campaign run in 1988 against Democrat Michael Dukakis succeeded; four years later, as the economy foundered, its reprise did not work against Bill Clinton.

“For a long time this is an argument they’ve wanted to set up,” said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs. “People understand that we have far bigger problems that we have to get to.”

Obama will combat the attacks by visiting economically depressed areas, Gibbs said, and will dispatch running mate Joe Biden, a native of working-class Scranton, Pa., to reach out to blue-collar families.

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The back-to-back conventions that ended Thursday night with McCain’s speech underscored the terrain on which the final 60 days of the campaign will be fought.

Both sides are fighting over values, with the Republicans on the offensive and Democrats playing defense. But on the economy, the battle lines are different, with Democrats on offense and Republicans looking to cut their losses.

Strategists in both parties believe that about 12% to 15% of the electorate remains up for grabs. Many of those voters are open to hearing about cultural and economic arguments alike, and the election may well be decided by which message is most compelling.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Times staff writer James Hohmann contributed to this report.


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