By E.J. Dionne Jr.
The core strategy of John McCain’s campaign is to turn Barack Obama into the incumbent, the man who is too familiar yet still mysterious.
The McCain effort reflects one of the most remarkable aspects of the 2008 campaign: Obama has turned himself into the central figure in American politics. That is an extraordinary achievement, but it comes at a cost.
One cost was measured by a fascinating Pew Research Center study released last week finding that 48 percent of those surveyed—and 51 percent of political independents—said they had heard “too much” about Obama. Only 26 percent (and 28 percent of independents) said that about McCain.
There was good reason for this: From mid- to late February until only the last week or so, Obama had received far more media attention than McCain, according to Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism’s Campaign Coverage Index.
Obama’s centrality has created an odd dynamic. The most important influences on the campaign are President Bush’s unpopularity and the collapse of public sympathy for the Republican Party, meaning that a majority is inclined to vote for the Democratic nominee unless he is rendered unacceptable.
But with Bush fading into the background, McCain has been running a campaign that is more about Obama than about himself. In recent weeks, McCain’s advertising tossed one charge after another at the man painted serially as “the biggest celebrity in the world,” “Dr. No” and “The One.” The McCain attacks clearly helped build Obama fatigue.
Yet Obama absorbed McCain’s assaults and headed to his holiday in Hawaii holding an advantage of four to six points—roughly the same margin he has enjoyed all summer—leading political strategists in both parties I spoke with in recent days to challenge the conventional wisdom of an Obama campaign “underperforming.”
Several suggested that McCain would pay a price for his anti-Obama campaign. Obama was criticized for not responding quickly enough to the McCain offensive. But the last two weeks have solidified voters’ perceptions, measured in recent polls, that the Republican campaign is far more negative than Obama’s. This opens space between now and Election Day for Obama to respond forcefully to McCain without being accused of having initiated the attacks.
Moreover, a candidate who spends all his time defining his opponent has not spent much time defining himself. McCain is living off the old capital created by his maverick image. This has fed voter perceptions that he is moderate and independent, which in turn has allowed him to run more competitively with Obama than any of McCain’s primary opponents could have.
But this image could be challenged. Despite McCain’s longevity in the public eye, a CBS News poll last week found a third of voters still undecided in their opinion of McCain or saying they didn’t know enough to form one. (Roughly the same proportion said this about Obama.)
This leaves room for Democrats to define McCain as a conventional conservative and a Bush supporter. And with McCain absorbing so many Bush operatives into his campaign, some Republicans wonder if the Arizona senator may have limited his maneuvering room to declare his independence from an unpopular president.
In the last two weeks, McCain has succeeded in narrowing the economic discussion to energy and oil drilling, forcing Obama to respond defensively. However, it’s unlikely that “drill, drill, drill” is a slogan that can carry McCain through November. Obama needs to broaden the debate on the economy to health care, unemployment, falling incomes and the mortgage crisis.
There is a certain shrewdness in the McCain campaign’s effort to turn Obama’s strengths—the energy he excites in crowds, the historic nature of his candidacy and the interest he has created overseas—into weaknesses.
“They’re trying to make lemonade out of a lemon,” said one Democratic strategist who is not working for the Obama campaign. “It’s not a bad thing to do, but it’s a sign of weakness.”
Thus the effort to turn Obama into the incumbent. McCain loses if the election becomes a referendum on Bush. He is running behind on most issues. And he has yet to generate the commitment among his own supporters that Obama has inspired in his camp.
The one contest McCain can win is an election about Obama. Paradoxically, Obama’s imperative at his convention later this month is to reassure voters about who he is, while also moving the spotlight off himself.
E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group