Pew: McCain gaining at the center

The latest Pew polling shows lots of interesting data on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and how Obama has lost ground to Hillary in both voters and in image. It also shows how John McCain has quietly worked his way towards centrists and independents while both Democrats loudly chase the Left. He polls much closer in the political spectrum to the average voter and has gained ground against both overall:

For his part, McCain runs better in the general election tests against both Democratic candidates among college graduates and white men. More generally, the current poll finds that McCain’s competitiveness against both Democrats is buttressed by the fact that voters continue to see him as a centrist whose views are fairly close to their own, and less conservative than George W. Bush’s. In contrast, voters place both Clinton and Obama considerably to the left of where they place themselves. These ideological perceptions of the candidates have changed little over the past three months.

While McCain is seen as more centrist than the Democratic candidates, he does not inspire as much confidence as either of them does to handle the issue voters would most like to see the candidates address: the economy. By wide margins, voters choose either Obama or Clinton as better able than McCain to improve economic conditions.

Yet voters have much more confidence in McCain than either Democrat to defend the country against future terrorist attacks. McCain’s advantage over Obama is particularly large. By 63% to 26%, more voters say McCain rather than Obama would do a better job of handling terrorism, which is a far greater margin than Bush ever enjoyed over John Kerry on this issue.

The economy will present a critical test for McCain. He has worked on building economic chops, and his campaign has notable assistance in this area from Steve Forbes and even Mitt Romney. Obama’s stumble on capital-gains tax increases could help narrow this gap, but thus far the McCain campaign hasn’t offered any focus on that gaffe from the April 16th debate.

McCain could use a well-recognized hand on economics as a running mate. I’ve suggested that Romney could fill that role, although Allahpundit has been less enthusiastic. Romney did a great job with fundraising in 2007 and could help fill a critical gap there as well. Now that Jeremiah Wright has managed to splatter himself all over Obama, not too many people would worry about Mormons in the general election. Mormons aren’t known for asking that God damn America or promulgating weird conspiracy theories about HIV and government-sponsored genocides. Wright’s demagoguery has taken the Mormon issue off the table, if Obama wins the nomination.

If not Romney, though, why not Forbes himself? Forbes was interested enough in the top job eight years ago to make a stab at it, and he certainly brings a brilliant conservative mind on economic issues. At 61, he’s young enough for the job — and his presence would give a large boost to conservative activists. He could singlehandedly make the McCain campaign the leader on economics while exposing either Hillary or Obama as pretenders, especially Obama.

That would also allow McCain to maintain his independent identity while maintaining a tough stance on national security. If the Democrats want to keep running to the Left, more and more voters will find McCain much closer to themselves.