McCain Prepares for Fall Fight as Clinton, Obama Battle On

The Democratic presidential candidates snipe and spar. The Republican presidential candidate plans and prepares.

John McCain knows it's going to be tough to make much news while the dramatic Democratic battle rages on, so in recent weeks, he has turned to frenetic rounds of fundraising and a series of themed travels and messages — campaigning among heavily Democratic working-class white and poor black Americans.

Along the way, McCain has also thrown the occasional jab at his prospective rivals, more often at Barack Obama than Hillary Clinton, signaling his campaign's belief that Obama will ultimately be McCain's opponent.

"Never count a Clinton out until they're out," said Charles Black, a senior McCain adviser. "But I'd be surprised — not shocked, but surprised — if she won the nomination."

McCain Girds for General Election Battle

With Clinton and Obama mostly focused on each other, this relatively quiet spring has been an opportunity to work on strategy and tactics for the general election campaign.

Based on conversations with members of the McCain campaign and Republican officials, here are some of the things to watch for in coming weeks:

Running Mate: This is one of the most closely held secrets inside his campaign.


The official line is that there is no timetable and that the process has gone no further than McCain "thinking about names." It's in the "embryonic stage," Black said.

The McCain forces believe the selection of a running mate is one of the few big events that can shape and affect a campaign. They want this one to score big.

If the Democratic race is somehow effectively settled within the next few weeks, a selection could come sooner — think June, early July — rather than later. If the Democratic race drags on, McCain may be inclined to hold off till late July or even August for maximum impact.

Given McCain's age — he will be 72 by Inauguration Day in 2009 — McCain has acknowledged that there will be even more than the usual attention and analysis of his choice.

The McCain camp is acutely aware that voters will scrutinize his running mate, sizing him or her up to see if they are comfortable with notion of that person as president. This suggests that someone unknown or susceptible to being seen as "too young," say, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, might have a hard time making the cut.

McCain and Bush: The McCain campaign has long worked from the premise that McCain's popular image as a maverick who has dared to break with his president and party on issues of conscience would largely inoculate him from the perception of being closely tied to President Bush.

But polls suggest that may not be the case as Democratic charges of "McSame" and "a third Bush term" have had more resonance than they at first calculated.

In recent weeks, McCain has been inching away from the president on such matters as relief for homeowners threatened with foreclosure, whether to add to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (Bush is for it; McCain against) and rather loudly with his criticism of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

McCain has begun pointing out that he criticized the "Rumsfeld and the president's" pre-surge Iraq strategy, not just pinning it on Rumsfeld as he used to. Also, buried in his recent economic speech, was a populist-sounding threat to investigate banks and lenders for possibly defrauding borrowers.

The McCain campaign believes one issue in particular over which he can accentuate his differences with the Bush Administration is the environment. For months, the Arizona senator has talked on the stump about the threat of climate change and the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Soon, he will step up his focus on this issue.

"That's a big difference between Senator McCain and President Bush," Black said. "[McCain] is not a protégé of President Bush. Those who don't know that will learn that background."

Age and Health: Polls show many Americans have reservations about electing a man who would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term. There's nothing he can do about his age, so the challenge is to assuage voters' concerns about it.

As previously mentioned, the McCain camp believes the running mate selection will mitigate some of those concerns. They say that worked for Ronald Reagan in 1980. They also seem to be contemplating some events or photo ops that would reinforce their contention that McCain is hale and hearty, although such an effort could run the risk of looking false. After all, McCain is not an outdoorsy, wood-chopping marathoner.

Whatever they're working on, Black says "his energy, passion and the schedule he keeps will be apparent to the American people by the fall."

On May 23rd — perhaps not coincidentally the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, when Americans aren't exactly glued to the television news or newspapers — McCain's health records will be released.

Reporters will be allowed to question some of his doctors on a conference call. Medical analysts will be watching for indications of his general health and how serious melanoma on his face was.

"What you're going to find is he is in good health," Black said. "Where he is now, his life expectancy is substantial."

Cross-Over Appeal: If Obama is his opponent, the McCain campaign says that presents golden opportunities to attract those Democratic voters with whom the Illinois senator has shown weakness: white, blue-collar voters and Hispanics.

If he can siphon off a sizable chunk of the former, the thinking goes, that would make McCain tough to beat in such key states as Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. McCain also believes he can do well with Latino voters.

He says he has run strongly with Latinos in Arizona in the past and his stand on immigration, co-sponsoring legislation that would have created a path to so-called "earned citizenship" for illegal immigrants, will help, his aides say.

Unspoken but acknowledged by one senior official is the fact that Latino voters have not supported African-American Democratic candidates as strongly as white Democrats in statewide and local races.

Obama, Wright and Ayers: McCain has taken the position that Obama has dissociated himself from the views of Rev. Jeremiah Wright and he will not attack him over that. He may not. But if Obama appears vulnerable on Wright, most likely someone else — surrogates, GOP officials — will.

The McCain campaign appears less hesitant about going after Obama over his putative relationship with a former Weatherman radical, William Ayers.

What's the difference between Wright and Ayers?

"Reverend Wright is not a criminal," Black said. "William Ayers is an unrepentant terrorist."

Ayers was a leader of the Weather Underground in the late 1960s and early '70s, when the group bombed government buildings including the Pentagon. Ayers was never convicted for the bombings. In 2001, he appeared to have made comments to the effect that he wished he and his group had "done more."

Obama hasn't said much about Ayers except that he didn't know him well. He was apparently introduced to Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, also a member the Weather Underground, when he first ran for political office more than 10 years ago.

But McCain is also vulnerable to his endorsement by the controversial evangelist John Hagee, who has been accused of anti-Catholic sentiments and once said Hurricane Katrina was divine vengeance on New Orleans for its moral depravity, including homosexuality.

Asked about that after touring the city's hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, McCain said: "Nonsense, nonsense." Still, McCain solicited Hagee's support and an attack on Obama over Ayers would likely invite a counterattack over Hagee.

The War: It's no longer issue No. 1 among American voters, but McCain's vigorous support for the surge is still a risky position when a majority of Americans tell pollsters it was a mistake to have gone to war.

McCain will argue that the surge is succeeding, that he called for the strategy long before President Bush did, that the war can be won and that debating whether going to war was an error is irrelevant now.

The McCain campaign believes it can turn the issue to its advantage, or at least neutralize it, if it can successfully cast the Democratic position of setting a fixed deadline for withdrawal as a cavalier willingness to abandon Iraq to "chaos and genocide."