If you were to make a movie about the general election campaign so far, John McCain would be a supporting actor.
Despite vulnerabilities that have kept the race closer in polls than most analysts expected — and McCain even jumped to a 4-percentage-point lead among likely voters in a USA Today/Gallup poll released Monday — Barack Obama dominates the race by virtually any other measure. He is dictating the agenda and soaking up news coverage as McCain and his team scramble to react.
“McCain is snakebit,” lamented one longtime Bush loyalist.
On Sunday, New York Times columnist Frank Rich — no McCain fan admittedly — declared that Obama’s triumphant sweep through the Middle East and Europe had revealed him to be practically the “acting president.”
Most political pros continue to believe the race remains within the GOP’s grasp. But two months of the five-month general election campaign are gone, and the McCain campaign — in a rerun of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s frustrations — are still searching for an effective formula for countering Obama’s appealing personality and fearsome political machine.
Too often, GOP insiders grumble, McCain’s strategy seems simply reactive. On Sunday, Obama announced he’d be meeting with his economic advisers on Monday. On Monday morning, the McCain campaign announced a conference call with his economic advisers.
McCain’s bitterness, frustration and near-obsession with Obama are on plain display: He even gave some free advertising to his opponent’s book the other day, complaining about the Illinois Democrat’s headline-grabbing trip.
"We rejected the audacity of hopelessness, and we were right," the Arizona Republican said Friday, playing off the title of Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope."
McCain's aides recognize that the race is becoming centered on Obama and hope to leverage that dynamic by bolstering their assault on the Democratic nominee-in-waiting.
In a private conference call with outside allies Friday, McCain campaign chief Steve Schmidt said they would greet Obama’s return to the country with even sharper attacks this week, according to a source on the call.
Schmidt told these Republicans that they would push the “risk” question about Obama and also begin to calculate and trumpet the hefty price tag on his proposals — a staple of the Bush campaign’s rhetoric against Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004.
“Tougher ads are in store for Obama this week,” according to a McCain source.
“The campaign is committed to driving a sharper, more disciplined message contrast,” said an aide.
At least the “sharper” part of this pledge was made apparent with the release of a new ad on Saturday night that seized on Obama’s cancellation of a planned visit to wounded American troops in Germany to suggest he nixed the visit upon being told “the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.”
The shape of the race, while unquestionably desirable for Obama, also carries huge risk for him. As the newcomer on the national stage, and the first African-American presidential nominee, the campaign is becoming a referendum on him and the willingness of skeptical swaths of the electorate to embrace that level of change all at once.
Every poll leaps from the page with the same message: Voters are dissatisfied with the direction of the country and want to elect a Democrat. The question now looming over the race is whether they are willing to elect this Democrat.
Half of the voters surveyed in a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released last week said they are focused on what sort of president Obama would be. Only a quarter said the same about McCain.
Further, 55 percent of those polled said Obama was the risky choice compared with just 35 percent saying the sameabout McCain
Charlie Black, one of McCain’s closest advisers, said his campaign advisers recognize they “have to play the card we're dealt” and said they weren’t all that surprised to find the race is all about Obama.
“It's natural that it would be that way, because he’s new on the scene,” Black said. “A lot of his views are unknown, even as his biography becomes better known.
“McCain is better known, both his biography and on issues, and is fully acceptable to a majority of the voters to be president. ... There are more question marks about what [Obama] would do."
At Obama’s Chicago headquarters, aides point out that U.S. presidential elections are almost always closer in the fall than they appear in the summer, and they say they are bracing for a ferocious season of combat.
“We assume it’s going to be close — history would suggest that,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said. “We assume that this race, structurally, should not change much. ... It could open in the end for someone. But we just assume it’s going to remain fairly close.”
But Plouffe quickly added: “We feel very good. ... I think the most underappreciated dynamic in the race right now is the difference in intensity. This has been remarked upon, but it could decide the election.
“Our voters are three to four more times intense than McCain’s. That means great turnout patterns, potentially. It also means a tremendous grass-roots volunteer advantage.”
The 71-year-old McCain has begun embracing his status as a known commodity, telling NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell when asked about his age on Thursday: “They need a steady hand at the tiller. ... That's what I'm going to try to convince them of.”
There is also risk, though, in running as the candidate of experience in an election in which voters seem to be crying out for change. Hillary Clinton found this out and had to recalibrate her message — too late, it turned out.
But McCain aides see few other openings and are trying to make the best of their candidate’s strengths while highlighting what appears to be the most obvious of Obama’s weaknesses.
Despite the shake-up earlier this month which saw the ascension of Schmidt to day-to-day manager, the conventional wisdom in political circles is that McCain’s organization continues to be regularly outgunned by that of Obama.
More importantly, though, McCain himself is causing regular headaches for his team with what have become almost regular gaffes or off-message statements. In seeking to keep pace with Obama’s boffo media coverage, McCain has opened himself up to the sort of regular questioning on which he rode to political stardom — but which also exposes him to risk.
Last week, for example, his demand for equal media time, guiltily granted by the networks, resulted not in a week devoted to driving a domestic message as originally planned but rather in serving up daily reaction to Obama’s foray and the issues surrounding it.
Tucker Eskew, a Republican strategist who worked on Bush’s 2000 campaign, agreed that the race was now being dominated by Obama — but said that there was still an onus on McCain.
“It forces the McCain campaign to press Obama to misstep,” Eskew said of the all-Obama, all-the-time dynamic. “He has and will make mistakes without being pressured, but Republicans can't bank on unforced errors.”
And Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who backed Clinton in the Democratic primary, notes that it’s not always the leading man who ultimately triumphs.
“A supporting actor can be memorable, stealing scenes with combinations of wit and charm and charisma,” says Sefl. “And Sen. McCain is certainly said to have those qualities. But there's no scene-stealing yet. It's as if he's still in dress rehearsls.”