Image: Barack Obama.
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Sen. Barack Obama speaks during a primary campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin.
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msnbc.com
updated 2/13/2008 6:02:10 PM ET 2008-02-13T23:02:10

Like boxers pouncing at the bell, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain touched gloves in the middle of the ring Tuesday night, launching the general election season after primary sweeps in and around the capital.

But they're getting ahead of themselves — neither has wrapped up their respective party nominations.

Still, you can see how their potential bout will likely develop.

Based on their public comments, and ones made privately by members of their inner circles, here’s my sense of the fight that may very well lie ahead:

Iraq
As Obama says, the war provides the sharpest possible contrast between the two candidates. McCain has said that we face what could well be a substantial, generations-long military commitment there — possible one that could last “a hundred years." Obama wants to begin removing troops immediately, leaving a bare residuum.

How to defeat terrorism
A warrior bred in a warrior caste, former POW McCain will stress is own military experience — and, by contrast, Obama’s utter lack of it — to argue that our military strength is the only guarantor of American security.

Even McCain’s opposition to the use of torture is based not so much on his desire to court world opinion (i.e., diplomacy), as it is to ensure that all captured U.S. soldiers will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions.

Obama, for his part, will likely argue that only global diplomatic support — and a vivid commitment to human rights — will make victory possible.

Who is the real 'independent?'
This could get interesting — and vicious — early. Both men appeal to independent voters, and do so by claiming to be outsiders, aghast at the money-mad corruption of politics as usual.

The fact is, both have been powerful vacuums of big money; expect to see tit-for-tat revelations of who has been taking money — and from whom.

Taxes and spending
Obama has turned his attention to McCain over the past few days, and the Illinois senator’s new stump speech pays close attention to McCain’s record on tax cuts.

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Obama will note that McCain had once called President Bush’s tax cuts irresponsible, but now wants to make them permanent.

In response, McCain probably say that he has always been a tiger when it comes to spending control, and that Obama, as a Democrat making big promises on education, health care and job creation, can’t be.

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Health care plans
An Arizonan, McCain is more of a Goldwater man than conservative critics acknowledge. He is wary of expanding the role of government in the marketplace, and that includes health care. He wants to use tax cuts and credits to give targeted money back to Americans to buy their own plans. And he wants to keep costs down by increasing market competition.

On the other hand, Obama advocates more of direct role for government when it comes to health care, although not quite as much as Sen. Hillary Clinton.

His basic idea is to expand a federal plan, a health care purchasing co-op, in essence, open to anyone who wants to join, which he thinks would be just about the entire population.

That would give government a greater role.

Age and temperament
An Obama-McCain race would present the biggest age spread between candidates — ever. There's a 25 year age difference, though McCain may be the more obviously energetic of the two.

This argument would be over not only vigor, but wisdom and judgment. In his victory speech Tuesday, McCain said long ago, in prison camp, he learned the vanity and uselessness of ambition for its own sake. And then, in not-too-subtle terms, he accused his potential rival of being in the game more for glory and self-aggrandizement than for a genuine desire to serve the nation.

Obama will argue that his own unique experience has taught him about the realities of the world, and has given him both hope and humility.

President George W. Bush
Obama will have little good to say about the president; McCain will have plenty.

'Social' issues
Obama will be a steadfast supporter of abortion- and gay-rights. If McCain hopes to pacify his own GOP convention and sweep the South, he is going to have to be more definitive on both matters than he has been so far. He will be.

Civility and 'bringing us together'
Both men say they are eager for a debate between two candidates of obvious good will; two men who want to bring the nation together after years of Red-Blue division.

They and their campaigns will spend lots of time trying to provoke the other side into bad-boy behavior. May the best man win.

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