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Starting Gate: McCain's Struggle To Break Through

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.

Around The Track:

  • With McCain poised to visit Mexico and Columbia, the Obama campaign announced that the Illinois senator will travel to Europe and the Middle East. "Senator Obama will visit France, Germany, Israel, Jordan and the United Kingdom where he will consult with the leaders of those nations about common challenges like terrorism, nuclear proliferation and climate change," the campaign said in a statement. Obama, who has taken criticism from McCain over his lack of visits to Iraq, is also expected to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan, though details have not been announced for security reasons.
  • McCain met with evangelist Billy Graham and his son Franklin yesterday at the Grahams' home in Montrea, North Carolina. "They're great leaders of this nation," McCain said. "I appreciate the opportunity to visit with them and I am very grateful for the time they spent with me." The Grahams had kind words for McCain – Franklin Graham said he was "impressed by his personal faith and his moral clarity on important social issues facing America today" – but they declined to endorse the Arizona senator.
  • The Washington Post looks at the impact of the presidential election on the Supreme Court. "A victory by the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, would probably mean preserving the uneasy but roughly balanced status quo, since the justices who are considered most likely to retire are liberal," writes Robert Barnes. "A win for his Republican counterpart, John McCain, could mean a fundamental shift to a consistently conservative majority ready to take on past court rulings on abortion rights, affirmative action and other issues important to the right."
  • Some (mostly young) Obama supporters are taking the middle name "Hussein" in solidarity with the candidate, the New York Times reports. They were spurred by the fact that some Obama critics have dwelled on the candidate's middle name, which was inherited from his Kenyan father. "My name is such a vanilla, white-girl American name," Ashley Holmes of Indianapolis told the Times. She said she changed her name – online, anyway – "to show how little meaning 'Hussein' really has."
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