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McCain Takes Harsher Tone

McCain Takes Harsher Tone

By Reid Wilson - July 29, 2008

John McCain understands that his best chance at winning the White House is to make the November election a referendum on Obama. But McCain's tone, sharpened in recent weeks, could damage one of the most unique and most popular brands in American politics.

Running a campaign involves not only building an argument about why voters ought to hire one candidate, and also why they shouldn't hire another. In many cases, once a candidate's name recognition is established, it is the second part of that message that determines which candidate will win or lose.

Candidates who find themselves running behind frequently try to frame the race as a decision about their opponent's performance because, in the long run, it is easier to sow doubts in a voter's mind than it is to establish positive opinions.

In this year's presidential race, McCain finds himself trailing, and while a vast majority of Americans want serious change, Obama, the Republican has argued, represents change that is too radical for the country. McCain's brand of change, he argues, is a more gradual step in the right direction. McCain casts himself as the safe choice, while Obama is the more risky one.

Pursuing that goal, McCain has lately questioned Obama's priorities on the war in Iraq, suggesting the Democrat would sacrifice the war for his own political ambitions; Obama's cancelation of a trip to visit wounded troops at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany; his commitment to the troops after a series of votes McCain says were in support of servicemembers; and Obama's commitment to rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, thanks to the Democrat's failure to hold hearings in a Senate subcommittee he chairs.

But McCain once attacked Obama for being a liberal, for representing politics as usual, and for changing his position on issues. Now, McCain's language has taken on a new sharper edge in recent weeks. "Senator Obama doesn't understand. He doesn't understand what's at stake here. And he chose to take a political path that would have helped him get the nomination of his party," McCain said on ABC's "This Week" in a pre-taped interview aired Sunday, referring to the difference between the two candidates on a strategy for Iraq. "I'm not questioning his patriotism. I'm questioning his actions. I'm questioning his lack, total lack, of understanding," he said later.

The broadside came a day after McCain's campaign launched the harshest attack ad yet in the two-month long general election campaign. The new advertisement, called "Troops," takes Obama to task for skipping a planned meeting with wounded veterans last week at the American air base in Germany. "Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hadn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops. And now, he made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops," the ad intones, over footage of Obama shooting a basket in Kuwait. "Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."

The advertisement, running in two swing states, ends with McCain's latest tag line, "McCain. Country first." Coupled with McCain's insistence that Obama does not understand the Iraq issue, and his persistent attacks on what he casts as Obama's willingness to say anything to get elected, the slogan's implication that Obama has other priorities is clear.

Temperament has always been a lingering issue for McCain, and stories of his outbursts at Senate colleagues abound. But during the primary season, McCain showed only brief flashes of anger, mostly directed at Mitt Romney is presidentail debates. Still, out of those exchanges, McCain emerged as the Republican nominee with the aura of the happy warrior, an image he must retain to win in November. If he turns into someone who appears simply angry, he will tarnish his brand and allow Obama to re-raise questions about whether he has the temperament to be president.

Instead, McCain may want to ignore Obama for a few weeks and focus on his own agenda. That's not to say the Republican nominee would be well-served by giving his rival a pass, but attacks come off better when presented by surrogates rather than by the candidate himself. Too, as McCain prepares to roll out a vice presidential nominee -- a key qualification of whom is traditionally the ability to attack with a smile -- he can transition to a more positive role.

Finally, backing off of such harsh language could quell an emerging storyline that McCain is in a desperate situation with more than three months to go before Election Day. With the Republican nominee trailing by a mere 4.7 points in the latest RCP Average and leading in several swing states crucial to both men's chances at becoming president, McCain is in no way out of the race just yet, and the desperation storyline could be stanched before it does serious damage.

Presidential contenders can, and have to, contrast themselves with each other. In the race between John McCain and Barack Obama, those contrasts are bountiful. But McCain's recent harsher, and increasingly personal, tone could do more harm to his own unique reputation and brand than harm to Obama's personality. McCain's efforts to strike the right balance between establishing the race as a referendum on Obama and allowing it to devolve into a mud bath could determine his success, or failure, in November.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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