MESILLA, N.M. — Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have been ever vigilant in recent days for signs of January Fever.
The candidates have slipped a few times into the “when I’m president” construction in campaign speeches, but usually are careful to use the cautionary “if I’m president” refrain.
“If I am elected president,” Mr. McCain said Saturday at a rally here, drawing out his “if” like an invitation to interrupt. Flurries of “When you’re president!” arose from the crowd, segueing into applause and, eventually, a chant of “John McCain, John McCain.”
“If I am president,” Mr. Obama said at a rally last week in Leesburg, Va., which also prompted near-instantaneous cries of “When!” from the crowd. But Mr. Obama was having none of it, or at least pretending not to have any of it (or, O.K., maybe a little of it).
“No, no, no,” Mr. Obama said, half-heartedly motioning for silence with his hands. “I’m superstitious. I don’t like counting those chickens before they’re hatched.”
The whole “chickens-hatched” thing has become a theme on the trail. For Mr. Obama’s campaign, the concern is that an expectation of victory — buttressed by his solid lead in the polls — could make his supporters complacent on Election Day. There is also the danger that his campaign’s confidence could spill into the danger-zone of cockiness.
The United States does love a winner, but it most certainly does not love an early-celebrating one. A sports analogy: Few spectacles are more satisfying than seeing a football player strutting toward the end zone, only to be tackled out of nowhere at the 1-yard line, causing a humiliating fumble.
Mr. McCain has spent significant stump time recently trying to portray Mr. Obama as the political equivalent of that strutting football player. (Or, in the case of Mr. McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, who prefers basketball metaphors, Mr. Obama is guilty of “cutting down the nets before he won the game.”)
Mr. McCain regularly mentions the “planning already under way” among Mr. Obama; the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid; and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to assume their hammerlock on the government come January. In Cedar Falls, Iowa, on Sunday, Mr. McCain accused Mr. Obama of already “measuring the drapes” for the White House, something he has said repeatedly.
As far back as July, Mr. McCain’s campaign has tried to pin the premature-inauguration tag on Mr. Obama. They dismissed his summer tour of Europe and the Middle East as a “premature victory lap,” and mocked him for fashioning his campaign logo into a faux-presidential seal (an experiment the Obama campaign quickly scuttled). For his part, Mr. McCain traveled abroad before Mr. Obama did, delivered a speech looking back on a hypothetical first term, and began giving a Saturday morning radio address, just as real, live presidents do.
On Saturday, Mr. McCain was given a gift — or at least an opening — when an article in The New York Times detailed plans by both campaigns for the transition between presidents and noted that Mr. Obama’s preparations appeared to be more advanced. The article fit neatly into Mr. McCain’s narrative of his rival’s presumptuousness. In Mr. McCain’s contemptuous retelling, one could practically imagine Mr. Obama, drunk with self-satisfaction, mouthing his Inaugural Address in front of a bedroom mirror to the strains of “Hail to the Chief.”
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At an appearance Monday in Pottsville, Pa., Mr. McCain told supporters: “The pundits have written us off, just like they’ve done before. My opponent is working out the details with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid of their plans to raise your taxes, increase spending and concede defeat in Iraq.”
Video: McCain plays defense in fight for red states “I guess I’m old-fashioned about these things,” he added, “I prefer to let the voters weigh in before presuming the outcome.”
It is not surprising that Mr. Obama’s campaign would be especially touchy about suggestions of early chicken-counting. “We are under instructions to work as if we’re 10 points behind,” said J. Seymour Guenther, an Obama campaign volunteer from Austin, Tex., who has spent five weeks here in this neighboring swing state. Mr. Guenther, a personal trainer and yoga instructor, watched Mr. Obama at a rally Saturday night in Albuquerque.
In his remarks, Mr. Obama cautioned giddy fans against complacency, urging them to work, work, work. The crowd jeered Mr. McCain. “You don’t have to boo,” Mr. Obama said, “you just have to vote.”
In states like New Mexico that allow early voting, Mr. Obama likes to ask how many people in the crowd have already cast their ballots. When hands shoot up, he will look up and nod for a few seconds, as if he is counting hands, or chickens.
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