IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McCain, Obama take rivalry to new heights

A contentious relationship between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama has been percolating on Capitol Hill for more than two years.
/ Source: The New York Times

Their tempest began well before their bids for a presidential nomination.

When Senator John McCain claimed victory for a round of primaries on Tuesday, it was little surprise that he skipped over criticism of Senator Barack Obama’s policies. There will be plenty of time for that.

Instead, Mr. McCain zeroed in on another long-held annoyance, a perception that Mr. Obama wears a political halo.

“I don’t seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness,” Mr. McCain said. “That history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need.”

A contentious relationship between Mr. McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Mr. Obama, Democrat of Illinois, has been percolating on Capitol Hill for more than two years.

As momentum picks up, so do jabs
Now it is being thrust to the forefront as Mr. Obama spends as much time taking on Mr. McCain as he does Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, telling voters here on Wednesday that “somewhere along the line he traded principles for his party’s nomination.”

“If you want the same as we’ve had in the last seven years,” Mr. Obama said, “then I think John McCain’s going to be a great choice.”

The exchanges, hardly uncommon in the throes of a biting race, carry residue of a dust-up they had two years ago and provide a window into how they view, and may approach, each other should they battle in a general election.

In a debate in 2006 on ethics in the Senate, which Mr. McCain regarded as a signature issue, he dressed down Mr. Obama and accused the freshman senator of disingenuousness. Mr. Obama called Mr. McCain cranky.

In public, that dispute melted away when the two cocked their fists at each other and hugged for a mutually beneficial photo opportunity. Their rapport has not advanced, and the two have a distant relationship. The two men are very different. Mr. McCain, 71, is a veteran of political and military battles. Mr. Obama, 46, is community organizer turned Ivy League graduate. Mr. McCain has told friends and associates that he views Mr. Obama as something of an upstart whose charmed political life delivered him to the same place Mr. McCain’s decades of public and military service did.

McCain hoping to face Clinton?
And, associates said, Mr. McCain had always hoped to take on Mrs. Clinton.

Although Mrs. Clinton has been in the Senate just four more years than Mr. Obama, she has been on the Armed Services Committee and traveled around the world with Mr. McCain.

Examples of their mutual respect typically include a tale of holding a vodka-drinking contest in Estonia. Such a celebration may have been unlikely to happen with Mr. Obama, who on a trip to Russia in 2005 asked that his shot glass be filled with water.

The Democratic nomination is far from decided, and Mr. McCain could still have his wish to face Mrs. Clinton. But after winning 21 states, amassing more delegates and building a larger fund-raising network, Mr. Obama has increased his chances week by week, and his advisers are deliberating how to confront Mr. McCain, particularly because a selling point of both is their ability to court independents and moderates.

Praise, pause, attack
Mr. Obama’s early strategy is clear: No matter what the message, praise Mr. McCain for his service to the country, particularly because Mr. Obama was not in the military. It is, strategists said, a similar approach to how Bill Clinton dealt with Bob Dole in 1996.

“By the way, John McCain is a great American hero, a war hero,” Mr. Obama told voters here. “We honor his service.”

He proceeded to criticize Mr. McCain for supporting the extension of the Bush administration’s tax cuts. Mr. McCain once opposed the idea.

“George Bush may not be on the ballot this fall, but his tax cuts and his economic policies are,” Mr. Obama said. “And if John McCain wants to debate the specifics of how well the economy has worked for ordinary families over the last seven years, that is a debate that I am happy to have, because the American people know that Bush’s policies have not worked for ordinary Americans.”

As Mr. Obama seeks to paint Mr. McCain as an extension of the current White House, Mr. McCain is seeking to raise questions about Mr. Obama’s readiness for the presidency. His critique carries a familiar frequency to questions that Mrs. Clinton raises.

He said Wednesday: “I’ve not observed every speech that he’s given, obviously. But they are singularly lacking in specifics.”

Battle hymns
Before an audience of Republicans on Tuesday, Mr. McCain was far more animated. “I have seen men’s hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience,” Mr. McCain said.

The exchanges recall the feuding on the ethics bill, which lingered for days and drew considerable notice, given Mr. McCain’s tone to a colleague.

“I understand how important the opportunity to lead your party’s effort to exploit this issue must seem to a freshman senator,” Mr. McCain wrote in a letter to Mr. Obama that he sent to every news outlet on Capitol Hill. “And I hold no hard feelings over your earlier disingenuousness.”

For his part, Mr. Obama has tended to highlight the generational differences, saying he represents the future and Mr. McCain represents the past. Mr. Obama’s advisers said although they have not determined how to deal with Mr. McCain, they intend to keep their criticism focused on differences over issues.

And no, they said, do not expect Mr. Obama to dust off the lyrics to a song he performed on March 11, 2006, when he appeared as a keynote speaker at the Gridiron Dinner in Washington. His words were written to the tune of “If I Only Had a Brain.”

“When a wide-eyed young idealist, confronts a seasoned realist, there’s bound to be some strain,” Mr. Obama sang perfectly on pitch. “With the game barely started, I’d be feeling less downhearted, if I only had McCain.”