While Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., deflected attacks about his minister's controversial comments, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., backpedaled on the details of a 1996 trip to Bosnia, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has, in recent weeks, stayed above the fray — keeping his hands clean of mud while his rivals bloody each other.
As the Democrats continue their campaign of attrition with no immediate end in sight, McCain takes his time. That time, strategists told ABC NEWS.com, is to his advantage, allowing him to rest, raise money, shuffle his campaign staff and develop a broad strategy for the national election.
On Monday he began a "biography tour," visiting places formative to his decades-long career in public service. This week's tour comes just days after returning from an international trip, during which the Arizona senator did his best to look presidential, meeting with heads of state or government in five countries and discussing the issues he knows best — foreign policy and national security.
"The longer it takes the Democrats to settle on a nominee, the better it is for McCain," said Matthew Dowd, a Republican strategist and ABC News political consultant.
Down and Dirty
"Clinton and Obama are in a mud fight. The negatives are quickly accumulating for both of them and McCain doesn't have to get his hands dirty. He can take care of the things he needs to concentrate on and let them beat each other up. It absolutely helps him," Dowd said.
The things McCain needs to take care of, Dowd added, include "raising cash, putting together a campaign staff, and figuring out a message and broad strategic direction, all of which are going to take time and effort."
It's anybody's guess whether the time will prove to be an advantage at the polls, come November, said Gary Langer, director of the ABC News polling unit.
"It is too early to take seriously, numbers for any sort of match up in November," Langer said. "Think of poll numbers as the score in a basketball game. The score in the first minutes of the game tells you little about the final outcome of the game. In terms of the general election, the game has truly just begun," he said. "It is a mistake to assume that what is true in the spring will remain true in the fall. It's still a very long way away."
The polls, for now, show dead heats for hypothetical match-ups between McCain and either Clinton or Obama.
"We'd urge not putting too much weight on general election polling just yet; November is a long way off, and the continued bloodletting in the Democratic race makes it a less-than-ideal time to ask Democrats, or independents, for that matter, their preference in the fall contest," Langer said.
Ultimately, he said, Democrats will likely turn out to vote for the Democratic candidate, even if that person was not their first choice.
"The vast majority of Democrats are going to vote for the Democratic candidate in November. Clinton supporters are likely to be more annoyed if Obama gets it, and the Obama supporters are more likely to get annoyed if Clinton gets it. Generally though, partisans will lick their wounds and vote for the party's candidate," Langer said.
With all this extra time — the Democrats might not have a candidate until their party's convention in August — McCain can focus on those areas in which he is weakest.
"McCain needs to get away from the rearview mirror issue of Iraq; he needs to stop looking at problems in the past and start looking forward. He is strong on national security and the war, but the public is already looking forward, and he needs to begin to do the same. He needs to concentrate on domestic issues that affect voters' futures, like the economy and health care," Dowd said.
A River Runs Through It
McCain did that Tuesday, speaking exclusively to ABC's Diane Sawyer from his alma mater Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va.
"Americans are hurting. Americans are hurting badly," he said. "They are sitting around the dining room or kitchen table deciding if they should get another job, dip into their savings, or lose their home."
McCain said lenders and borrowers need to meet to faciliate helping people have forclosed on their homes. Lenders who "cashed in hundreds of millions of dollars," he said, should be punished, but did not specify how.
He said he had distinguished himself from President Bush by emphasizing a need for a national policy on climate change and by supporting a winning strategy in Iraq.
On Monday in his ancestral home of Meridian, Miss., the first stop on his biography tour, McCain highlighted job training programs because "children learn as much from observation as instruction. The mother or father who has lost hope, along with their job, can unintentionally impart that hopelessness to their children."
Government spending, he said, "must not be squandered on things we don't need and can't afford, and which don't address a single American's concern for their family's security."
The drama of the Democratic race may, however, prove to be a disadvantage for McCain. With so much attention, even negative attention, on Obama and Clinton, McCain has to work harder to get print and air time.
"It is a double-edged sword for McCain. Certainly, he's getting less attention because the Democratic race is dominating media coverage," said Howard Kurtz, media critic for the Washington Post. "But he gets less scrutiny for mistakes, such as his misstatement on Iran and al Qaeda. The campaign is trying to put him in the spotlight with his world tour, and this week with his bio tour.
"He's got the nomination wrapped and he's putting himself out there. The problem is, how many people will hear his message. Nowadays, when you turn on the TV, all you see is people fighting about whether Hillary should drop out."