On Friday afternoon, right around the time Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were appearing together in Unity, New Hampshire, presumptive GOP nominee John McCain was scheduled to speak over the phone to the Jewish group B'nai B'rith International.
Members of the group heard McCain give his opening remarks, but then, as the Los Angeles Times reports, all they got was silence.
About 15 minutes later, McCain came back on the line. He asked where the group lost him, and was informed that it had been at the beginning of his comments. McCain, it turned out, had apparently given his entire speech without anyone hearing it.
It was a moment that nicely captured the presumptive GOP nominee's challenge. When the primary battle between Obama and Clinton ended, there was supposed to be a significant increase in media coverage for the Arizona senator, who had somewhat faded to the background as the high-profile Democratic candidates sucked up all the air.
But even without Clinton as his sparring partner, Obama has continued to dominate headlines to such a degree that McCain wouldn't be faulted for wondering if all his speeches weren't being heard. McCain's biographical tour and policy addresses do not seem to have resonated in the way he'd hoped, and much of his media coverage has come in the form of those dutiful "what the opposition is up to" reports that often follow stories about the more newsworthy candidate.
McCain has to take part of the blame: Republicans have been grumbling that the Arizona senator, whose campaign appearances have been underwhelming, has not yet figured out how to effectively define himself against Obama. Instead of coming up with new strategies, the McCain campaign has largely been sticking to what (barely) worked in the primary: On Saturday, for example, it unveiled an airplane called the Straight Talk Express, modeled on the bus of the same name.
McCain, along with other Republicans, has also taken up a familiar criticism of Obama, suggesting that he is a flip-flopper whose rhetoric about a new kind of politics rings hollow. That might turn out to be an effective strategy, but it sounds an awful lot like the attacks used against Democratic nominee John Kerry in 2004 – not exactly ideal for a candidate trying to cast himself as a post-partisan alternative to an unpopular president.
If McCain can't find that big, defining idea to give shape to his candidacy, he can always just continue chipping away at his rival. But a strategy built not on giving people a reason to vote for you but on giving them a reason not to vote for the other guy can't hold much appeal for the Arizona senator. And a campaign of back-and-forth potshots isn't going to help McCain break through against a candidate who has little trouble keeping himself in the spotlight.
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