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'Insiders running as outsiders'

Two sitting US senators neck-deep in the American political establishment are running for president as anti-Washington outsiders.

world Updated: Sep 20, 2008 09:41 IST

Two sitting US senators _ neck-deep in the American political establishment _ are running for president as anti-Washington outsiders.

Puzzling? Not if you're familiar with the classic Hollywood western _ the lone sheriff riding to the rescue of an outlaw-ridden frontier town.

Political scholars say the venerable campaign tactic emerges from the bowels of a contradictory American mythology that holds individuals and outsiders are capable of great things while promoting a distrust of those who govern _ a warriness that dates back to America's founding fathers.

"There's just this strong strain in American life _ like the movie Western _ that celebrates the individual as being able to change things," says Susan Sterett, political science professor at the University of Denver in Colorado.

Democrat Barack Obama has been true to his outsider's message of change from the outset of his campaign. It served him well in the long Democratic primary race against consummate insider and fellow Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady. And he used it to maintain a slight lead over Republican John McCain until both parties' late summer conventions.

That's when things changed _ for a time at least. Before the Republicans assembled in St. Paul, Minnesota, to formally nominate him as party standard-bearer, McCain had been running on his long experience in government, especially in foreign affairs and national security issues.

But then McCain, a former Vietnam prisoner of war, surprised the world by choosing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a 44-year-old virtually unknown outside her home state. He simultaneously switched his message to that of a "maverick" promising to shake up Washington. The experience message wasn't working.

McCain was clearly trying to blunt Obama's bid to link the Arizona senator to unpopular President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican who started the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is held largely responsible for the country's dramatic economic meltdown.

McCain, who has been in Congress for 26 years, apparently realized he needed to turn up the volume on his anti-Washington rhetoric if he were to succeed in shedding the Bush burden. Since then, it's been a duel about who best can bring change. "Let me just offer an advance warning to the old, big-spending, do-nothing, me first, country second crowd: Change is coming," McCain railed at the Republican National Convention. Obama, meanwhile, revised his slogan, from "Change We Can Believe In" to "The Change We Need."

There is evidence that McCain's tactic has worked somewhat. A new New York Times/CBS News poll found Americans believed Obama was more likely than McCain to bring needed change to Washington by a 65-to-37 percentage-point margin. However, before the conventions, only 28 percent of voters said McCain would change Washington. Seth Masket, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, called it a switch "to the classic American tradition of running against Washington. That's particularly acute in a year like this when there is very broad dissatisfaction with the incumbent party and where the country is headed." The anti-Washington tactic has deep roots in American political history and is "a cast of mind that may make us different than every other country in the world," says Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. "When things go badly here," he says, "we tend not to blame the system, but rather we see it as a matter of bad people abusing a system we love."

That leads to the belief "that we just need a few new people to fix everything," says Kenneth Long, political science professor at Saint Jospeh College in West Hartford, Connecticut. And there is an ironic tinge, it would seem, to a presidential race that's relying on old-hat tactics in an otherwise history-making campaign.

Never before have two sitting U.S. senators run for president _ McCain is serving his fourth 6-year term; Democrat Barack Obama his first. Obama is the first African American to win the nomination of a major U.S. political party. McCain, at 72, would be the oldest first-term American President. Palin is the first woman picked by the Republicans as vice presidential nominee.

Since World War II, the only U.S. presidents who have not run for office as outsiders were Democrats Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and Republicans Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. All of them had been vice presidents. And there is no certainty that outsiders, even if they win, will find it easy to govern.

Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both governors when they ran for president, found it hard to put their plans into action because of their lack of Washington experience and a recalcitrant Congress.

The anti-Washington tactic is "trickier" for McCain than for Obama, Masket contends, simply because he has been part of the political establishment for so much longer. Obama only burst into the national consciousness when he delivered the keynote address at the Democratic convention four years ago as he was first running for the U.S. Senate.

Roanoke College's Wilson said the task boils down to convincing voters that "even though I've been in Washington for a long time, I've never really been accepted by the elite. I'm a maverick. I'm OK."

But Matthew Dowd, a former chief political strategist for Bush, finds it all "a little surreal, a little like a campaign slogan that says, 'We broke it so vote for us to fix it.' "