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Road kill in suburbia

How Palin hurts McCain in the Philly burbs

In one of those spasms of self-delusion that typically afflicts a desperate campaign, the John McCain strategy team has apparently convinced itself that (a) the candidate can win Pennsylvania, and (b) that he can pull it off by tapping his purportedly strong popularity in the four populous suburban counties that surround Philadelphia. Mindful that the Philadelphia suburbs are chock full of socially moderate, independent-minded voters, one McCain insider told Politico yesterday that "McCain is more like a (Tom) Ridge than a Bush," referring to the former two-term Republican governor, who did well in the burbs. "That gives suburban voters a comfort level with (McCain). He's a different kind of Republican in so many ways."

This is precisely what I mean, when I talk about self-delusion. The four suburban Philadelphia counties, once reliably Republican, have been steadily trending Democratic since the dawn of the Bill Clinton era, and one big reason for this - as repeatedly explained to me back in 2004, when I interviewed a slew of ex-Republican suburbanites who had switched their registrations - is the steady rightward tilt of the GOP on social issues. These voters were turned off by the heavy influence of the religious right, and the national party's moralistic opposition to abortion, gays, and stem-cell research.

Which naturally brings us to John McCain's albatross, the sartorially splendid Sarah Palin. Let us not mince words here. McCain became road kill in the Philadelphia suburbs as soon as Palin began to open her mouth. She embodies everything that suburban moderates have come to dislike about the GOP; she erases whatever "comfort level" those voters may once have had for McCain; she has destroyed McCain's claim to being "a different kind of Republican."

Case in point: Palin's radio interview with religious right leader James Dobson, posted online yesterday. I recognize that this interview isn't nearly as sexy as the story about how the Republican National Committee saw fit to dress up the "hockey mom" at a cost of $150,000 (which far exceeds the typical hockey mom's annual income), but the substance of the Dobson lovefest is too relevent to ignore. Basically, Palin's message to those pivotal Philadelphia suburbanites was that her running mate, John McCain, is a conservative purist on abortion, just as she is. If nothing else has sealed the deal for Barack Obama in the burbs, that assertion should do the trick.

The key moment came when Dobson brought up the official Republican party platform, which decrees total opposition to abortion - with no exceptions for rape, incest, or the endangerment of the woman's life - and proposes that this ban be codified in the U.S. Constitution. Dobson asked Palin, "In your private conversations with Senator McCain, is it your impression that he also strongly supports those views?"

Palin: "I do, from the bottom of my heart. I am such a strong believer that McCain believes in those strong planks, and we do have good conversations about some of the details, too, about the different planks and what they represent. And I'm very heartened that John McCain, he doesn't want a vice president who will check the opinions of me at the door, and we talk about some of these. And they are very important. It's most important, though, as you are suggesting that Americans know that John McCain is solidly there on those solid planks in our platform that build the right agenda for America."

Those remarks prompt me to wonder who at this point is really in charge of the McCain campaign  - is it McCain, or her? Because the fact is, McCain has repeatedly indicated that he opposes a total ban on abortion, that he would permit abortions in cases of rape, incest, or the endangerment of the woman's life; as recently as Sept. 8, a McCain aide told the website that McCain favored those exemptions. But here was Palin, apparently on her own, yanking him further rightward.

And not only on abortion, either. McCain has generally supported embryonic stem-cell research, and he has opposed any constitutional ban on gay marriage - yet Palin believes from the bottom of her heart that McCain is on board with the stem-cell ban and the gay marriage ban, as spelled out in "those solid planks in our platform." Hearing all this, Dobson pronounced himself satisified, and said, "I'm just trying to serve the Lord as you are...God's perfect will will be done on November the 4th."

The problem is, every earthly poll indicates that McCain has lost his "maverick" brand, particularly among women and independents, and that will greatly impede his bid to win Pennsylvania  - the only major blue state that he is still trying to seriously contest. The latest Quinnipiac poll, released this morning, puts Obama on top statewide by 13 percentage points - specifically because of the antipathy to McCain among women and independents. McCain is losing women to Obama by 24 points, and he is losing independents by 20. And Palin is a major drag on his prospects; she is now viewed favorably by only 38 percent of Pennsylvanians.

But let's be more specific. Here is Clay Richards, the poll's assistant director: "Senator Obama leads comfortably in Pennsylvania, mostly because he has pulled away in the four key suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia, where Keystone state races are decided."

Obviously, economic worries have underscored the suburban flight from McCain. But Palin's presence on the ticket, and her depiction of McCain as a right-wing purist on the social issues, merely serve to remind the swing-voting moderates of all they had come to dislike about the national GOP.

Palin told James Dobson that "we have to have faith that it's all going to be good at the end of the day there, on November 4th." But she is far more likely to discover that faith won't mean squat in the Philadelphia suburbs.