By Daniel Politi
The Los Angeles Times leads with a look at how John McCain’s campaign is focusing its energies on trying to shape the public’s view of Barack Obama. Funnily enough, that’s exactly what Obama’s campaign is trying to do as well. While McCain has turned increasingly negative—”even derisive,” says the LAT—in trying to portray Obama as inexperienced and out of touch, the presumptive Democratic nominee is attempting to convince voters that he can be trusted as commander in chief.
Obama’s efforts to “portray himself as presidential … run the risk of appearing arrogant or presumptuous,” says the LAT. That’s exactly what the McCain campaign is hoping for as it released an advertisement yesterday that compares—”and not in a good way,” the NYT helpfully specifies—Obama to celebrities like Britney Spears by showing pictures of his speech in Berlin last week. “Right now, both campaigns have to do the same thing, which is establish who Barack Obama is,” a Republican pollster tells the LAT. “That’s the real battle going on.”
Something the LAT fails to mention but the NYT points out in its off-lead is that McCain’s tactic comes straight out of the President George Bush playbook that seeks “to make campaigns referendums on its opponents.” The WP goes one step further and directly states that McCain is “adopting the aggressive, take-no-prisoners style of Karl Rove.” Everyone says that even some Republicans have been taken aback by the recent aggressiveness of McCain’s attacks. Espousing such a persistent negative message about his opponent could easily evaporate one of the main aspects working in McCain’s favor—his image as a politician who doesn’t play by the normal rules of Washington. Still, it’s clear that since much of the public is trying to make up its mind about Obama, McCain has a great opportunity to plant doubts about the Democrat that could persist until Election Day.
That is assuming he can stick to the message. In a front-page piece that almost (but not quite) implies that McCain’s aides are thrusting this aggressive style on the candidate against his will, the Post notes that the senator from Arizona is unpredictable and dislikes parroting talking points over and over again. As a result, McCain’s “advisers cringe” when he “keeps talking” and subsequently dilutes what could have been a good sound bite. McCain’s campaign has been criticized for lacking a consistent message, but to some Republicans that failure has more to do with the candidate’s shortcomings rather than campaign’s failures. And the NYT points out that there are those who believe that trying to “apply the Bush model” to McCain simply won’t work. “It could be the Coca-Cola strategy of marketing that they’re trying to apply to Dr Pepper,” a former McCain strategist said.
In the Post‘s op-ed page, David Ignatius flat-out suggests that what we’re seeing now isn’t the real McCain. In a fawning piece that goes through McCain’s biography, Ignatius says the presumptive Republican nominee needs to stop listening to advisers and start being himself. “What’s damaging the McCain campaign now, I suspect, is that this fiercely independent man is trying to please other people,” writes Ignatius. “He should give that up and be the person whose voice shines through the pages of his life story.”
Not everyone agrees. In a piece that is bluntly (disrespectfully?) titled “Is John McCain Stupid?” the WSJ‘s Daniel Henninger writes that McCain is constantly making things harder for himself on the campaign trail by talking too much and failing to make things simple. “Someone in the McCain circle had better do some straight talking to the candidate,” writes Henninger, who suggests that, essentially, the presumptive Republican nominee needs to be saved from himself. Instead of playing to win, McCain is “competing as if he expects the other side to lose it for him.”
In the LAT, Jonathan Chait also essentially says that Obama needs to let go of his instincts, but in the other direction. Instead of just presenting himself as the better candidate, Obama must tell voters why they shouldn’t vote for McCain. Just like McCain seems to be following Bush’s playbook, Chait says Obama appears to have picked up John Kerry’s strategy that worked so well in 2004. Now, instead of relying on his usual “weak-tea replies” that “express ‘disappointment’ with McCain,” Obama needs to go on the offensive and start attacking. “Obama doesn’t need to engage in character assassination and baseless charges, as his opponent has done,” writes Chait. “All he needs to do is stop letting McCain paint a wildly distorted self-portrait.”