What If Ridge Were on the Ticket?

(Mary Altaffer / AP Photo)

As longtime Stumper readers will recall, I suffered this past summer from an affliction that could only be described as Ridgemania--that is, the feverish belief that John McCain would be best served choosing former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge as his running mate, despite Ridge's pro-choice views.

Now it looks like someone agrees with my previous arguments. His name? Tom Ridge. Asked on Friday if McCain should have picked him over Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the guy all but said yes. "I think the dynamics would be different in Pennsylvania," Ridge explained. "I think we'd be foolish not to admit it publicly." He added that McCain "had several good choices, and I was one of them."

As McCain and Palin spend the day stumping across Pennsylvania, Ridge raises an interesting counterfactual question. Would the McCain campaign be better off--today, right now, with one week until the election--if Ridge were on the ticket? As always, hindsight is 20/20--especially from the safety of one's armchair, on Monday morning. But I suspect that the answer is yes.

For starters, it's worth considering what the Palin pick was supposed to accomplish--and what it's actually gotten done.

Task one: Energize the base. Status: Signed, sealed and delivered. Palin had hard-core Republicans at hello, and since then she's been one of the main reasons (if not the main reason) supporters show up at McCain events and volunteer in his field offices. After the Republican convention, former Ohio congressman Rob Portman told me he was terrified that Obama would outhustle McCain on the ground in the Buckeye State--until Palin joined the ticket. Overnight, McCain offices went from empty to full, he said. Palin deserves the credit.

Task two: Appeal to disgruntled Clintonistas. Status: Not so much. At first, Palin provided McCain with a major boost among white women. But her disastrous interviews with Katie Couric--and Tina Fey's parodies thereof--sent independents scurrying. According to the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, Palin is the only principal candidate with a net negative rating; 34 percent of Independents say she's made them less likely to vote for McCain.  

Task three: Rebrand McCain as the "candidate of change." Status: Eh. An object of intense public fascination, Palin dominated the media landscape for weeks. She put a new, vigorous, female face on the GOP and seemed poised to seize Obama's celebrity crown. McCain quickly refocused his narrative on the concept of reform. But after the dust settled, Palin's apparent unreadiness for office--57 percent of voters now say she's not well informed about major domestic and foreign-policy issues and 55 percent say she's not qualified to assume the presidency--did more to undermine McCain's major advantage over Obama (experience) than to undermine Obama's major advantage over McCain (change).

Task four: Boost McCain in key swing states. Status: Nothing doing. Initially, Palin was thought to have a sort of pan-American appeal. Her outdoorsy "Hockey Mom" persona would attract swing voters in upstate Michigan and the Mountain West, while her Joe Six-Pack roots would win McCain points among the white ethnics of Pennsylvania and Ohio. It didn't work out that way. Currently, Obama is leading by more than 10 points in every Kerry state and more than 6 points in the Bush states of Ohio, Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia--more than enough to win the presidency (if the polls hold).  

Here's where Ridge--one of the veep finalists closest to McCain's heart--comes in. To be sure, his pro-choice position would've done little to excite the base. In fact, much the opposite. But as McCain's current status shows, an eager base isn't enough--you need to win over independents. By using the most consequential decision of his presidential campaign--his choice of running mate--as an opportunity to defy conservative orthodoxy and conventional wisdom, McCain would've A.) appealed to moderate swing voters longing for the "maverick" who ran in 2000 and B.) extended an olive branch to pro-choice former Clintonistas dissatisfied with Obama.

Would some right-wingers have stayed home? Sure. But ultimately, I suspect that moderate, pro-Ridge McCainiacs would've outnumbered social conservatives willing to sacrifice the opportunity to elect a fully pro-life president (i.e., McCain) who has pledged to appoint "strict constructionists" to the two Supreme Court seats likely to open up over the next eight years in favor of a Democrat (Obama) who boasts a 100 percent NARAL rating and has essentially pledged to do the opposite--simply because McCain's veep, who has absolutely no bearing on abortion laws whatsoever, only opposes "partial birth" abortion, abortion as birth control, abortion in cases other than rape or incest or to save the life of the mother, abortion without parental consent and travel to other states to avoid notification law. Ridge's upside, in other words, would've outweighed his downside. And McCain would've ended up looking more courageously "postpartisan" than Obama--not less.

Ridge has other advantages over Palin. He may not have signaled change, but his long resume and military background--he left law school to serve in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and other medals for "for exceptionally valorous actions"--would've reinforced McCain's perceived edge over Obama in the experience and foreign-policy departments. Raised in veterans' public housing by working-class Roman Catholic parents, Ridge may have served as an able ambassador to white blue-collar voters already wary of Obama. McCain may have been far more comfortable, relaxed and confident with an old friend on the ticket--instead of someone he barely knows, and according to recent reports, doesn't quite trust.

Finally--and most importantly--there's Pennsylvania. As I recently reported, McCain can't afford to lose the swing states where Obama is now polling above 50 percent--the Kerry states plus Iowa, New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia--without picking off a Democratic property. That's why he's spending so much time, energy and money in Pennsylvania--the only "winnable" state that's worth enough electoral votes (21) to offset his potential losses. Unfortunately, every poll released in recent weeks has shown McCain trailing by more than 10 points. That probably wouldn't have been the case with a popular former governor at his side.

This, of course, was the case Ridge was making on Friday. We'll never know if he was right. But you have to wonder, as Election Day approaches, whether McCain is at least asking himself the question.

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