Congress And The Candidates: Who's Doing Best Among "Friends"


Barack Obama's audience inside the Capitol this week will number about 200, not the 200,000 who gathered last week in Berlin. Yet all signs point toward a closed-door session with similar enthusiasm for the Illinois senator.

In one of the notable turnabouts of the 2008 campaign, Democratic politicians and voters alike display more fervor for Mr. Obama than Republicans for John McCain.

Within Republican cloakrooms on Capitol Hill, the coolness toward their maverick presidential candidate is mutual. But Democrats express remarkably few reservations about Mr. Obama – despite his tough nomination fight with Sen. Hillary Clinton and the risks associated with his race, his liberal policy stances, even his non-traditional name.

"He's preaching to the choir," Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Florida told me, once a staunch Clinton backer, "and we're ready to sing."

In part, Democrats' contentment flows up from the grass roots. In the most recent New York Times poll, Obama enjoyed a three-to-one edge in the proportion of voters expressing excitement about their choice.

Obama's campaign has also calmed Democratic political pros with its organizational competence, fund-raising prowess and measured stump performances, including overseas last week. In fact Democrats have grown so buoyant – overconfident, Republicans say – that part of Mr. Obama's message to the House Democratic Caucus will concern their plans to govern together in 2009.

Republican lawmakers remain more focused on short-term survival. McCain's Congressional colleagues, disaffected for years by his unorthodox stances on tax cuts, spending, campaign finance and immigration, now worry about his thin campaign organization and unfocused message.

Team McCain has lately responded with steps to remedy those flaws and improve coordination with fellow Republicans. Yet Republican members of Congress also recognize this incongruity about McCain's candidacy.

The very factors that strain their own relationship with him may help both buck the headwinds facing the party at the close of George W. Bush's presidency. Indeed, they happily acknowledge that McCain may need to distance himself from Congressional Republicans as well as the unpopular White House incumbent.

"The best thing he can do for us is to run well," Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee told me. "If he's got a way to do it that involves triangulation, fair enough."