This story was written by Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin.
As Senator traveled overseas, the campaign against him appeared to take a decisive new turn with Senator zeroing in on his Democratic opponent's character.
In a year when polls show an easy victory for a generic Democratic candidate, McCain has until now been loathe to employ the tack many strategists see as essential and which anonymous e-mailers and commenters with no apparent links to his campaign have been practicing since last summer: hitting Obama not on his record or his platform, but on his values and person.
The Democrat's Achilles' heel in this model is an inchoate sense among some voters that the new arrival on the national stage with the unusual biography-and who's the first black nominee from either party-isn't American enough.
Prior to Obama's trip overseas, though, McCain had instead employed, without appreciable effect, a more conventional critique of his opponent as an ordinary politician, a "flip-flopper," and, of course, a liberal.
On Saturday, though, McCain released a new television advertisement in which the announcer says that on his trip, Obama "made time to go to the gym, but cancelled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."
"John McCain is always there for our troops," adds the announcer, before concluding with the campaign's new slogan: "McCain, country first."
The slogan's inverse implication for his opponent was made clear earlier in the week, when McCain accused Obama of placing the his political ambitions before the national interest.
"It seems to me that Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," McCain said Tuesday in New Hampshire, in a line he's been using regularly since.
While Republican presidential candidates have long sought to paint their Democrat foes as insufficiently devoted to the country, the military or both, McCain's suggestion that Obama preferred to hit the gym than to visit wounded soldiers is considerably more personal than, say, President Bush's 2004 attack on Sen. john F. Kerry for voting against bills to fund troops in Iraq. In some ways, it bears more of a resemblance to the third party Swift Boat campaign that denigrated Kerry's service in Vietnam.
Further, McCain is uniquely qualified to make this charge, and Obama uniquely vulnerable to it.
A former naval aviator and prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain is pressing his case against a candidate with no military experience, and who-thanks in part to a subterranean smear campaign that's tapped a nerve with some voters who because of it or even prior to it-don't see him as entirely or all American.
While the botched troop visit might have been the stuff of an attack ad in any case, since it was the only significant slip-up in an otherwise well-staged trip, McCain's new ad dovetailed with the latest viral email aimed at Obama, a widely-circulated-though later recanted-missive from a Utah National Guard officer stationed in Afghanistan, Joseph Porter, who wrote that Obama "blew…off" and "shunned" soldiers during his visit there.
"He was just here to make a showing for the Americans back home," Porter wrote, though press reports contradicted some of the details provided in his email. "It was almost that he was scared to be around those that provide the freedom for him and our great country."
Obama responded with high-minded disappointment to McCain's new round of attacks, and his traveling companions in the Middle East, Senators Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed, condemned them.
"I think John is treading on some very thin ground here when he impugns motives and when we start to get into, 'you're less patriotic than me. I'm more patriotic,''" said Hagel, a Republicanand Vietnam veteran who's yet to endorse a presidential candidate and is rumored to be considering a cross-party endorsement.
It's a tempting line of attack, though, against Obama, who a recent poll found that 55 percent of voters thought was the "riskier" choice for president as against 35 percent who said McCain. It's also an attack that tap into a major source of that unease, race, and is especially likely to pay dividends with a relative newcomer to the national stage such as Obama, whose public image is not yet as clearly defined.
McCain's turn to character also reflects his campaign's deep, genuine contempt for Obama. As the Democrat enjoyed boffo media coverage and a warm reception at every turn on his foreign trip, McCain aides began to openly use their derisive nickname for him, "The One," mock some of his more gushing coverage, and draw a contrast between what they characterized as their candidate's demonstrated dedication to country and their rival's lip service to the same.
The tone is reminiscent of Hillary Clinton's disdainful mocking of Obama in the primary. "The skies will open, the light will come down, celestial choirs will be singing and everyone will know we should do the right thing and the world will be perfect" she said, just a touch sarcastically, of her rival. Her attack is also a reminder of the difficulty in landing a clean shot on Obama.
In his book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama wrote: "I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."
While that has helped fuel Obama's meteoric political assent and may have blunted the impact of some attacks on him, it's now proving a stumbling block for many swing voters, particularly older ones. For all the media attention his historic run has attracted, not to mention the quarter-billion he has already spent introducing himself to the nation, 25 percent of respondents in a recent Newsweek poll wrongly believe he was raised as a Muslim and nearly 40 percent errantly thought he attended a Muslim school while growing up abroad.
These claims have also come up repeatedly in Politico interviews voters, including Democrats and independents.
Kathie Steigerwald, a Dearborn, Michigan businesswoman who said she voted for Hillary Clinton but now plans to support McCain, offered an especially succinct recital of a narrative on which other interviewees offered numerous variations:
"I feel John McCain is a true American and I want to support a true American," she said.
But isn't Obama a "true American?" she was asked.
"I don't know," she said after a measured pause. "I question it."
"I don't know-maybe because of his name?"
Whatever his motives, McCain's new hit on his foe's patriotism hints at two years of whispered, viral rumors and myths about Obama centered on his patriotism and American values, or, more to the point, his lack thereof. The emails -catalogued in snopes.com's lengthy Obama section and Obama's own "fight the smears" page -often have contradictory particulars, but the thrust is clear: Obama, various false emails claim, is not really a natural-born American citizen; is not really a Christian, and refuses to pledge allegiance to the American flag.
"[McCain] can't beat him with the old 'liberal' playbook, they can't beat him by deploying the old social-cultural wedge issues, and it seems more and more that they won't be able to beat him on readiness and experience," said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic consultant whose clients have included Senator Joe Lieberman.
"So all they really have left is the personal stuff, first and foremost what I would call fear of the other, which is mostly but not exclusively about race, and goes to visceral issues of trust."
"I'm not questionng his patriotism," McCain said on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopolous. "I am saying that he made the decision [to oppose the surge], which was political, in order to help him get the nomination of his party.
"It really is the first time in the campaign where you have had the Obama online smears, of which there have been many, matching up with the actual paid negative advertising of a candidate," said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant.
McCain supporters rejected the notion that this new line of attack is out of bounds.
"It's accurate, effective, and timely," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant, of McCain's ad. "It seriously speaks to the calculated nature of the trip and Obama's own [calculating nature]."
Wilson said the questions about Obama's values and patriotism have particular potency because of his background, though he rejected the notion that race played a major role in it.
"Obama is always going to struggle with the cultural disconnect-he scans very much as liberal Ivy League elitist," he said. "People automatically put him in a box with people who are not like middle America's view of patriotism."
Jim Pinkerton, a contributor to Fox News who worked for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and for Mike Huckabee in this year's GOP primary isn't convinced of the efficacy of this line of attack:
"First they goaded him into going to Iraq and that was pretty successful-for Obama. And now the McCain people are trying to goad him into spending more time with the troops and going to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers.
"They better be careful what they wish for, since Obama just might screw them up and do it."
By Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin