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Presidential race: You ain't seen nothing yet

John McCain and Barack Obama began to look beyond the nomination contests this week, sizing each other up.
/ Source: National Journal

If you listened closely to and celebrate their Potomac Primary sweeps Tuesday night, you heard the beginnings of a new presidential race -- the rumblings of an epic battle itching to get under way.

can't be counted out yet. But the victors' speeches this week presented the starkest contrasts we may see all year -- contrasts that the 71-year-old war hero and the 46-year-old anti-war hero have already started to unveil.

With varying degrees of gusto, Obama and McCain have started defining their would-be rivals. For the first time they looked away from the base voters they've courted for a year with hair-splitting debates over narrow disagreements, and they eyed a larger, more complex audience they both hope to face this fall.

Theirs is not a forced rivalry. While Clinton and McCain have forged a cordial friendship in the Senate, the two men have circled each other suspiciously and have, at times, bared their teeth. It was two years ago last week that McCain fired off an angry note to Obama, accusing him of "self-interested partisan posturing" in a debate over lobbying reform. Obama dismissed McCain's gripes as "sound and fury" and told his colleague to lighten up.

Speaking in Virginia this week, McCain showed no signs of doing so. He signaled he'll challenge the very premise of Obama's supposed appeal: his aspirational message and persona.

"I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need," he said. "I seek the presidency with the humility of a man who cannot forget that my country saved me."

McCain also took on the H-word (hope) with a direct shot more pointed than Clinton's best critiques. "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope," he said. "It is a platitude."

He then sought to confront one of his own weaknesses in a would-be race against the young senator -- his age. As "a young man," McCain said, he thought "glory" was "the highest ambition, and that all glory was self-glory."

"My parents tried to teach me otherwise, as did the Naval Academy. But I didn't understand the lesson until later in life," he said.

But as he matured, he said, "I discovered that I was dependent on others to a greater extent than I had ever realized, but that neither they nor the cause we served made any claims on my identity. On the contrary, I discovered that nothing is more liberating in life than to fight for a cause that encompasses you, but is not defined by your existence alone. And that has made all the difference, my friends, all the difference in the world."

Message: I've been where Obama is today, everyone of a certain age has. But then, hopefully, we grow up. I understand things about life's mysteries, things he can't possibly know yet.

Obama landed Tuesday in Madison, Wis., where, as if to reinforce McCain's point, he received a touchy-feely endorsement from the Capital Times. The headline: "For Barack Obama and the better angels of our nature."

Speaking on Tuesday, Obama laid out a more predictable case against McCain, linking him to an unpopular president and an unpopular war. "His priorities... are bound to the failed policies of the past," Obama said of McCain. "George Bush won't be on the ballot this November, but his war and his tax cuts for the wealthy will."

"John McCain won't be able to say that I ever supported this war in Iraq, because I opposed it from the beginning," Obama said, a shot at both McCain and Clinton. "Senator McCain said the other day that we might be mired for a hundred years in Iraq, which is reason enough to not give him four years in the White House."

Obama said he "admired" McCain when he opposed the Bush tax cuts. "But somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels, because now he's all for them."

Obama also highlighted the age difference, albeit in a potentially unintended way: He challenged McCain to a schoolyard brawl. "I'm skinny, but I'm tough," he joked Monday at a rally in Baltimore, Md. "Don't mess with me. Let 'em bring it on. Who they got? John McCain?"

Again, it's the starkest contrast we could possibly see this year. So far, it looks like a pretty even fight.