November battle lines being drawn

Obama, McCain redirect their focus, ignore Clinton

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / May 11, 2008

Barack Obama has begun ignoring Hillary Clinton on the stump, made plans to visit general-election battlegrounds, and launched a 50-state voter registration program to build his base for November.

John McCain has shelved his blueprint for running a general election campaign against Clinton, turned his fire squarely on Obama, and begun coordinating with the Republican Party about how to beat the Illinois senator in the fall.

Even as Clinton fights on in hopes of beating Obama to the Democratic nomination, the tenor of the presidential campaign has changed following Obama's big win in North Carolina last week and his surpassing Clinton in the race for superdelegates. In tactics and in message, Oba ma and McCain have pivoted toward what they expect to be their toe-to-toe battle for the presidency over the next six months.

"In a contest between myself and John McCain, there is going to be a very clear choice on policy that I don't think is going to have to do with ideology and who theoretically is more liberal or who's more conservative," Obama said yesterday in Bend, Ore. "I think it is going to have to do with who has a plan to provide relief to people when it comes to their gas prices, who has a real plan to make sure that everybody has health insurance, who's got a real plan to deal with college affordability."

At other events last week, Obama consistently directed his aim at McCain, branding his economic plans, commitment to the war in Iraq, and campaign behavior as an extension of Republican rule that the country can ill afford. Campaigning Friday in Beaverton, Ore., Obama made no mention of Clinton but raised McCain's name nine times, according to prepared remarks, accusing him, for example, of catering to "the healthy and the wealthy" with his healthcare plan.

McCain is also largely ignoring Clinton. He is working hard to paint Obama as a liberal neophyte and attacking his views on federal judges, his pledge to eliminate President Bush's tax cuts, and even the positive words of Ahmed Yousef, a political adviser to Hamas, the Palestinian organization, called Obama a "great man with great principle." Both the Bush administration and Obama consider Hamas a terrorist group.

Analysts say the disputes of the past week offer a glimpse of what is to come in the general election season.

"McCain's campaign is going to continue to make Obama seem inexperienced and naive, and Obama is going to continue to talk about McCain as a continuation of the Bush presidency," said Dan Schnur, a top aide to McCain during his 2000 presidential bid.

Beyond the sharper sniping, the Obama and McCain campaigns are preparing tactically for their expected fall match-up.

Obama and his aides, as they consider where to devote time and energy, have begun looking past the primary calendar - with six contests remaining over the next four weeks - to states integral to the general election. The Illinois senator will travel to an unspecified general-election battleground as early as this week, aides say, and already has a major campaign swing planned for Florida later this month.

Yesterday, Obama's campaign launched a 50-state voter registration drive called "Vote for Change" with more than 100 events across the country. The initiative, designed to expand on Obama's unprecedented success in attracting new voters this year, could add tens of thousands of Democratic voters to the rolls.

Obama's senior strategist, David Axelrod, told reporters last week that McCain had been allowed to "run free" over the last few months and that the campaign felt it could no longer wait to focus on the general election.

"Everybody is eager to get on with this," Axelrod said.

Everybody, of course, except Clinton and her supporters, who reject the notion that the primary race is over. On Friday, Clinton was still accusing Obama of crafting a healthcare plan that would leave millions of Americans uncovered.

If Obama secures the nomination, one of his first tasks would be to unify the Democratic Party, which, for all its excitement about record voter turnout, effectively cleaved into two hardened camps in recent weeks as the nomination race grew divisive. Obama must win over some of Clinton's blue-collar supporters - the "Reagan Democrats" who helped Republicans win the White House in 1980 - or risk losing key swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

From the opening minutes of his victory speech in North Carolina Tuesday night, Obama insisted that he can heal the wounds within the party wrought by the bitter primary season, and shift the discussion to the issues that separate Democrats and Republicans.

"This fall, we intend to march forward as one Democratic Party, united by a common vision for this country," he said Tuesday. "Because we all agree that at this defining moment in our history - a moment when we are facing two wars, an economy in turmoil, a planet in peril, a dream that feels like it is slipping away for too many Americans - we can't afford to give John McCain the chance to serve out George Bush's third term."

Obama has also begun preparing for November in more subtle ways, emphasizing in speeches his family's deep debts to America, an effort to blunt recent attacks that he is insufficiently patriotic. His choice of backdrop for his speech Tuesday night - a group of white women holding American flags - seemed designed to signal his support across demographic subgroups.

John Sides, a professor of political science at George Washington University, noted that Obama had tried to focus on McCain earlier this year, but had been sidetracked by Clinton's primary victories and controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

"Now he's back to perhaps trying to act a little bit more like the nominee and a little bit less like just a candidate," Sides said.

McCain has been visiting battleground states and laying out policy positions in speeches on healthcare, the economy, and other issues. He also has been furiously fund-raising, in hopes of cutting into the Democrats's tremendous financial advantage so far this electoral cycle.

And McCain is stepping up attacks on Obama. Last week, for example, he highlighted Obama's opposition to the Supreme Court nomination of Chief Justice John Roberts, saying Obama belonged to "an elite group of activist judges, lawyers, and law professors who think they know wisdom when they see it - and they see it only in each other."

Charlie Black, a senior McCain adviser, said the campaign would also go after Obama as a "protectionist" on trade.

Black said the campaign had mapped out races against both candidates, and while he said he never counts the Clintons out, McCain advisers had effectively shelved the "legal pad that's about Clinton."

"I don't think there's any reason to be reacting or responding to her for the next several weeks," he said.

Indeed, on Wednesday, after Obama's big win in North Carolina and narrow loss to Clinton in Indiana, McCain's campaign released a detailed memo to reporters asserting that Democrats in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania would desert Obama in the fall. The memo all but ignored Clinton.

A sharp exchange last week over the Hamas adviser's kind words for Obama underscored the degree to which the two campaigns are squaring to face off.

Speaking to bloggers last month, McCain said, "If Senator Obama is favored by Hamas, I think people can make judgments accordingly."

Obama told CNN Thursday that McCain's remarks were "offensive," saying, "For him to toss out a comment like that I think is an example of him losing his bearings as he pursues this nomination."

A couple of hours later, McCain's campaign released a blistering memo from senior McCain adviser Mark Salter, who accused Obama of trying to raise McCain's age - he is 71 - with the word "bearings." Obama, Salter wrote, is "trying desperately to delegitimize the discussion of issues that raise legitimate questions about his judgment and preparedness to be president of the United States."

Obama spokesman Bill Burton shot back in a statement: "Clearly losing one's bearings has no relation to age, given this bizarre rant that Mark Salter just sent out."

Scott Helman can be reached at

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