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John McCain's been free to fire at Barack Obama for weeks, now comes the response

May 10, 2008 |  7:02 pm

Three months ago, Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, made a calculated decision to begin painting a not-so-pretty picture of Sen. Barack Obama, now the presumptive Democratic nominee.

Although Sen. Hillary Clinton was -- and still is -- battling Obama for the Democratic nomination, McCain began preparing his case against the Illinois senator early. McCain's advisors, like other obsSenators, presidential candidates and likely nominees of their party, Arizona's John McCain, Republican and Illinois' Barack Obama, Democratervers, concluded Obama was the likely nominee and wanted to begin shaping Obama's image while the Democrat was still consumed with fighting Clinton.

Defining one's opponent is a key task of any campaign, and simply put, McCain has had a long head start. As early as Feb. 12 -- the day McCain and Obama each won primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. -- the Arizonan suggested Obama was guilty of hollow promises and a messianic self-image.

"To encourage a country with only rhetoric, rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people, is not a promise of hope," McCain said, alluding to Obama's speaking skills and campaign theme.

And in another jab he added, "I do not seek the presidency on....

...the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need."

Unlike McCain, Obama has been fighting a two-front war, trying to beat back a relentless onslaught from Clinton while taking opening shots at McCain. Recently Obama has started focusing more squarely on the Republican, attacking his positions on the war and the economy.

But because of the long, bruising Democratic campaign, McCain has gotten an early jump. Day by day, week by week, McCain has been able to showcase his personable sense of humor (see video:)

while portraying Obama as inexperienced, self-entitled and effete, a candidate coddled by a loving press corps and lacking the judgment necessary for the highest office in the land.

It's a line of attack likely to last through the fall election.

"We'll make the case that Barack Obama is a wonderful new voice selling old, discredited ideas, including the most massive tax increase since Walter Mondale ran for president," said Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain advisor. "It's a combination of weakness, not being ready to be president and not being able to deliver on the things he says he will deliver on."

It's not clear how widely these criticisms have resonated, given the intense media focus up to now on the Democratic battle. The Obama campaign says in any case it believes that's unlikely to sway voters eager for change.

"Unlike John McCain, Barack Obama had the judgment to oppose this disastrous war from the beginning," said Hari Sevugan, an Obama spokesman, "and the judgment to understand that for the sake of our security we now need to change course and bring it to a responsible conclusion."

"It's clear that John McCain isn't offering anything new -- his false attacks and meaningless labels are as tired as the failed Bush policies he's offering for another four years," Sevugan added.

But the McCain camp sees Obama's relative lack of experience and accomplishment as a major vulnerability, especially compared to a longtime senator and war hero. In a speech on his judicial philosophy last week, McCain again went after Obama for being more of a talker than a doer, as well as for what he considers Obama's very limited record of bipartisan accomplishment.

"Sen. Obama in particular likes to talk up his background as a lecturer on law, and also as someone who can work across the aisle to get things done," said McCain.

"BuThe two remaining Democratic presidential candidates -- Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York -- have been struggling against each other while the Republican nominee Senantor John McCain of Arizona has already been targeting Ovbama for many weekst when Judge Roberts was nominated, it seemed to bring out more the lecturer in Sen. Obama than it did the guy who can get things done. McCain accused Obama of casting a "partisan" vote against John Roberts to be chief justice of the Supreme Court.

On Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" on Thursday, McCain was asked what Obama's main weakness is as a candidate. "Inexperience," he replied. "I think inexperience and lack of judgment, and a record that shows that -- whether it be showing a desire to sit down with the president of Iran, who has articulated his country's commitment to the extinction of the state of Israel, [or] wanting to raise people's taxes."

As Obama closes in on the Democratic nomination, the public's attention is likely to turn more to the fight between Obama and McCain. A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll released Friday showed Obama leading McCain 45% to 40%, with the rest undecided. Most national polls have shown a statistical tie between the two, though polling this early often is unreliable.

Both candidates have emphasized their intention to run civil, positive campaigns. But that hasn't stopped either from taking shots.

Charles Black, McCain's senior strategist, said both men have presented themselves as change agents, and voters should know which candidate has the record to back it up.

"Both candidates are candidates of change, reform, and promising to work across party lines," Black said. "Guess who has a record of doing that? It's McCain and not Obama."

McCain is particularly critical of Obama for his plan to quickly withdraw troops from Iraq and his willingness to meet with the heads of rogue nations. Those positions, McCain frequently suggests, are grounded in a lack of experience, as well as poor judgment.

On "Morning Joe" on MSNBC in April, McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot, responded with derision to Obama's call for leaving a limited strike force in Iraq. "I think somebody ought to ask what in the world he's talking about, especially since he has no experience or background at all in national security affairs," McCain told host Joe Scarborough.

But McCain faces hurdles in getting through to the public with that message. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular, which matches Obama's position better than McCain's. Republicans remain unpopular. Most voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, that economic conditions will get worse and that gas prices are likely to stay high, said Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg.

"Being the experienced person from Washington is not what voters are looking for right now," Greenberg said. "People actually want something very different. They want Washington to be different."

Some of McCain's arguments about Obama have already been tried by Clinton, who has portrayed Obama as inexperienced and unlikely to get big things done.

"Just because it didn't work so well for Hillary Clinton doesn't mean it's not going to work for John McCain," said Amy Walter, editor of the nonpartisan political guide The Hotline. "What you're talking about are two different audiences."

The possible shape of a McCain-Obama contest came into stark relief last week when McCain noted that a spokesman for the Islamic militant group Hamas had said he supports Obama. The Illinois senator, who has said he would not meet with Hamas leaders, called that "a smear" and said McCain was "losing his bearings."

That, in turn, prompted the McCain campaign to issue a blistering response calling Obama's words a clumsy way of pointing to McCain's age, which is 71. Obama is 46.

-- Jill Zuckman

Jill Zuckman writes for the Swamp of the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau.                         Photo Credits: AP