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.

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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.

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