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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s speech accepting the vice-presidential nomination may have been well-received, but the man at the top of the Republican ticket must still persuade voters that he’s capable of addressing their economic anxieties, said Karl Rove, the former White House deputy chief of staff.
“The most important thing for McCain to do is find a way to show a comfort with the kitchen table issues,” Rove said. “I think that’s the biggest challenge in tonight’s speech.”
While McCain often seems most comfortable discussing issues related to defense and national security, the man known as “the architect” of President Bush’s two presidential campaigns urged the Republican nominee to focus on economic issues.
“The American people have no doubt about his ability to be commander-in-chief,” Rove continued, but voters still want to know: “Does he get it, and does he know what he’s going to do?”
Rove’s expectation-setting comments came at a breakfast panel hosted by Politico, The St. Paul Pioneer Press and Yahoo! News. Former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, former Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas, Washington Times editorial writer Tara Wall and commentator Armstrong Williams also appeared on the panel.
Rove also advised McCain to open up on a personal level with voters.
“He needs to find a way to share his interior self,” Rove explained. Telling the story of his daughter Bridget’s adoption from Bangladesh, Rove asked: “Who knows that? Not enough people.”
When it comes to connecting with economically distressed voters, Blackwell argued that the McCain-Palin ticket could make progress by continuing to discuss energy.
“I think energy is a big issue in the state of Ohio,” Blackwell said, noting that sections of the country would stand to profit from increased coal mining. “That’s about jobs. That’s about growing our economy. That’s about reducing the pressure on working families.”
The former Ohio gubernatorial candidate also predicted McCain and his running mate would reach out to small-town and rural Ohioans during the home stretch of the presidential campaign.
“You look at the state of Ohio, you look at the real growth opportunities, it’s not Cleveland. It’s not Cincinnati,” Blackwell said, suggesting that Palin’s background as the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, would play well in much of his home state.
It’s not just small towns, though, that the panelists said McCain should target in the campaign’s final 61 days: Several argued that Hispanic voters remained the most promising untapped demographic for the GOP’s brand.
“Hispanics are more in line with the Republican way of thought than just about any demographic,” said Cardenas, mentioning growth among Hispanic evangelicals and military families, and increasing numbers of Hispanic small-business owners as promising signs for the Republican Party.
“There is a real, exploitable opportunity there,” Blackwell agreed. “The greatest growth opportunity for expanding the base and getting a winning turnout will probably be in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas, among the Latino votes.”
McCain could have an uphill climb among Latino voters: A Pew survey released in late July showed him losing among Latinos by 66 percent to 23 percent — a significant drop-off in support after Bush won approximately four in 10 Latino voters in his 2004 reelection campaign.
Perhaps reflecting this reality, some panelists advised McCain not to reach out to potentially unreceptive constituencies at the cost of energizing Republican stalwarts. Williams mentioned African-American voters as a group the Republican Party doesn’t have much hope of winning over.
“Black people are going to vote for Barack Obama, in many cases because he’s black, and we should just get over it,” Williams said.
Particularly given McCain’s past problems with conservative voters — apparently dispelled this week with his announcement of Palin as his running mate — it might not make sense for him to pursue traditionally Democratic constituencies too aggressively, panelists said.
“You need to make sure you’re taking care of the base,” Wall said, arguing that some conservatives still distrust McCain because of his stance on immigration reform and many nonwhite votes are simply not in play, anyway. “You need to make sure you’re reaching out to the black folks and Hispanics who support you, first.”