BATON ROUGE, La., June 4, 2008 -- Before Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., could assume the mantle of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, his Republican counterpart, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was ready and waiting to attack.
Less than 24 hours after Obama crossed the Democratic delegate threshold, McCain has done more than dissociate himself from the unpopular Republican incumbent, and portray Obama as a rookie politician -- he's lobbed an unorthodox debate proposal at his presidential rival in an attempt to shake things up early with a dramatic gesture.
As proposed by McCain, the town hall-style debates would occur once a week for 10 weeks leading up to the Democratic convention in August. McCain insisted on the format, believed to be his strongest platform.
"I don't think we need any big media-run productions," McCain said Wednesday at a town hall event in Baton Rouge. "Just two Americans running for the highest office in the greatest nation on Earth, responding to the concerns of the people whose trust that we must earn."
An average orator in more traditional, constrained debate formats, McCain can come across as prickly when questioned sharply or annoyed by an opponent.
In contrast, McCain is at ease and glib in the free-flowing give-and-take with citizens in the town hall setting. He has plenty of experience in the format, too. In New Hampshire alone, he held 100 such meetings in 2007 and early 2008. He credits those appearances with his win in that state's critical primary.
New York Times columnist David Brooks said many Republicans regard Obama as a "charming lightweight." He warned that they would learn otherwise when Obama and McCain debate.
McCain appears to be banking on his ability to expose Obama, on a shared platform, as weak on national security and lacking the experience and judgment to occupy the Oval Office.
Speaking last night to a crowd of several hundred at Pontchartrain Center near New Orleans, McCain sought to portray Obama as an unknown rookie politician, while simultaneously distancing himself from President Bush more explicitly than he has done before.
"You will hear from my opponent's campaign in every speech, every interview, every press release that I'm running for President Bush's third term," McCain said in a scoffing tone of mock incredulity. "You will hear every policy described as the Bush-McCain policy. Why does Senator Obama believe it's so important to repeat that idea over and over again? Because he knows it's very difficult to get Americans to believe something they know is false."
The fact that McCain then larded his address with specific examples of his differences with Bush -- over the Iraq war, climate change, the federal response to Hurricane Katrina, treatment of detainees, government spending -- suggests the Democrats' "Bush third term" line of attack has stung.
At the same time, McCain sought to define his newly annointed general election opponent, and frame the race, outlining Obama as a gifted speaker and an effective campaigner, but a man without substance, hopelessly naive or misguided about important issues.
"He is an impressive man, who makes a great first impression," McCain said. "But he hasn't been willing to make tough calls, to challenge his party, to risk criticism from supporters to bring real change to Washington." McCain said he is someone who has worked across party lines in Congress, while Obama, he said, has never backed up his claims to bi-partisanship. McCain's message boils down to: "You know me. You know my record. The other guy is pretending to be able to do what I have actually done."
McCain shows no signs of finessing his position on the Iraq war, nor trying to make the issue less prominent. Paradoxically, the war is unpopular, and McCain is an ardent and unabashed supporter of it, yet, polls show Americans trust him more than Obama to manage it and on issues of national security in general.
McCain is betting he can convince voters that whatever they think about the wisdom of having gone to war, the troop "surge" has succeeded and the United States is now in a position to "win" -- whatever constitutes winning -- and that, withdrawing in accordance with an arbitary deadline would amount to surrender. He warns that if U.S. troops are pulled out, al Qaeda will resurge and U.S. troops would have to go back in again to deal with the threat.
On the economy, McCain spoke more generally, revisiting the familiar ground of his long-running fight against wasteful government spending.
The selection of a running mate will be a critical decision for McCain. His aides have said it will be one of the few single events that can re-shape and energize a campaign. McCain says the process has not advanced very far. A McCain adviser signaled not to expect a decision until just before the Republican convention at the beginning of September.