DENVER — One of the (few) nice things about being housed 15 miles from the site of the actual convention – yes, hotel rooms downtown were tough to come by even for CFR – is the serendipitous conversations you find yourself having in the Marriott breakfast nook, in the taxi queue. In this case, as I stepped into my rental car to head for the Pepsi Center, a nattily dressed fellow tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Any chance I can bum a ride?” He turned out to be Peter A. Brown, chief pollster for the respected Quinnipiac University Poll, and I made sure he paid for his 20-minute ride downtown by peppering him about the relative position of foreign policy issues in the collective mind of the electorate. Brown is known in his trade as a man who knows as much as anyone about the attitudes of the electorate in a series of key “swing” states. This time around, he has focused much of his attention on Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, three states with a history of splitting their votes between Republicans and Democrats and deciding elections. Interestingly, in this cycle, he says, international issues – particularly if “free trade” and “immigration” can be included–are playing relatively high in all three. Generally, all three include large numbers of centrist voters often characterized as “Reagan Democrats,” people Brown sees as naturally attracted to Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) maverick reputation, but also comfortable with the economic populism espoused at times by Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) campaign, and with less fervor to date, by Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL). “Going protectionist could present great opportunities to Obama,” Brown says. Not only will it shore up his support among Hillary Clinton voters who might be giving McCain a hard look; It also puts the McCain camp in a difficult position in a bad economy when the emotional arguments against free trade are finding traction in the middle and working classes.On the other hand, Brown sees the return of Russian assertiveness in the Caucasus as an issue which “has done a great favor for McCain.” The thinking among political professionals, he says, is that instability of any kind generally will favor the Arizona Republican, with his long record on national security issues. “The exception in Iraq, where relative calm makes it a more difficult issue for the Democrats to highlight,” he says. “But don’t get me wrong, the Iraq war, even with the recent changes there, remains very unpopular.”
Other issues, too, will make their mark. In Florida, of course, there’s a determination to see that the long trade embargo imposed in the early 1960s on Fidel Castro’s Cuba remain in place, though researchers have shown evidence of a softening among South Florida’s Cuban-Americans. Border states in the southwest may still force a real debate – absent so far – on immigration policy.