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GOP, Dem communication strategies diverge at the Indian border

WASHINGTON – The difference in Indian country outreach and communications strategies between the two presidential campaigns became glaring Sept. 18, when Democratic hopeful Barack Obama rolled out the endorsements of Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., more than 100 other tribal leaders, and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

The day before, GOP candidate John McCain had assured Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the Northern Cheyenne former senator and close friend, that an Indian-specific event would occur in October, probably in Phoenix. But no date had been established, and campaign schedulers will decide it, Campbell said. As the election season entered its homestretch to November, little had changed since the primary season.

Now it is McCain who relies on surrogates to speak up for his experience with Indian country while Obama marshals new support.

But if any tribe would know McCain based on his almost 30 years in Congress, it would be the Navajo. The nation’s largest reservation touches four states, but more of its citizens reside in McCain’s home state of Arizona than anywhere else. Next-door New Mexico, a key state that has been closely contested in recent elections, hosts many Navajo as well; and Richardson, a nationally prominent Democrat, has said that as the Indian vote goes – so goes the state.

Shirley’s public endorsement of Obama took place in New Mexico, at the Indian Pueblo Culture Center in Albuquerque. Clearly aiming to court the Southwest Indian vote for Obama, he singled out tribal leaders in New Mexico, Arizona and the Southwest with a call to the ballot box.

By comparison at least with Obama’s efficient outreach to Indian country, McCain remains on the defensive, counting on his track record with tribes to outweigh missed opportunities and mixed messages.

The Republican National Convention may have featured a Native honor guard and at least two affiliated Native functions, but it missed an opportunity to put Campbell before a television audience of millions, holding forth for McCain and highlighting Indian country.

On top of that, the campaign has sent Indian country mixed messages in three key settings – Georgia, Washington state and North Carolina.

In Georgia, the well-disposed could tease out a reason for McCain’s reliance on Ralph Reed as a fundraiser.

Though tarnished by his association with criminal GOP lobbying impresario Jack Abramoff, a poster boy for all the political corruption McCain claims to hate, Reed could be relied on to deliver funding and other support from evangelical Christians in the closely contested state, courtesy of his former career as director of the Christian Coalition.

Given Georgia’s fractional Indian population, explained an Indian affairs lobbyist on condition of anonymity, McCain’s fairly obvious gambit was to gain more from evangelicals in the state than he stood to lose from the disapproval of Indian country.

His motives in Washington, also a key state this year, appear similar. There, former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton, renowned in Indian country in the 1990s as “the last Indian fighter,” is the chairman of McCain’s in-state campaign. Republican tribal leader W. Ron Allen, of the Jamestown S’Klallam, led the campaign from Indian country that helped to dislodge the incumbent Gorton. Allen described McCain’s reliance on Gorton as discouraging but understandable; Washington is a far more Indian-populous state than Georgia, but still Indians number 150,000 out of 6 million voters. “So it’s just pure math – how do you win it?”

Probably with Gorton, Allen said. “Slade is still very well connected with regard to the Republican Party in Washington state.”

In any case, Allen said McCain’s reliance on Gorton doesn’t lessen his own confidence in McCain’s commitment to Indian country at large. “John McCain is a man of great conviction and commitment,” he said, and predicted that he won’t change his attitude toward Indian country. He’s running his own campaign, not Gorton’s, Allen added.

In North Carolina, on Sept. 2, the McCain campaign began running a television ad that attacked “tax and spend” Democrats, especially Obama. But among the senators pictured in the ad was Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, McCain’s successor as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The ad went national only days after Thomas Heffelfinger, an attorney with Best & Flanagan in Minneapolis and a McCain supporter, said that one of McCain’s critical attributes is bipartisanship, his ability to reach across the aisle and craft compromise legislation with the other party – an ability polished during his years on the Indian Affairs committee, he noted. “That is one committee in Congress where partisan politics is checked at the door.”

The campaign attack ad featuring Dorgan didn’t change his opinion, Heffelfinger said: “They’ll still be able to work together.”

“I can almost guarantee that it has nothing to do with the issues before the committee,” he said of the ad. Dorgan appeared in the ad with the scowl he has fixed on many witnesses before the committee, a particularly baleful expression that contributed to the ad’s theme of cheerless Democrats.

Dorgan, who has emerged as an outspoken advocate for Indian program funding and effective federal assistance from lead agencies on Indian affairs, did not offer a comment on the ad.