John McCain is wasting no time running a general election campaign as he settles into his newfound role as the Republican Party's presidential nominee-in-waiting.
"Both of them lack experience," the Arizona senator said Thursday about Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, now focusing entirely on his Democratic rivals and emphasizing his qualifications to be commander in chief.
McCain's stepped-up faulting of the pair marks an effort to take advantage of a window afforded him by essentially wrapping up the GOP nod nine months before the election, while Clinton and Obama continue to battle it out. Throwing stones at the Democrats keeps him in the mix as they seize the headlines, and, he hopes, might allow him to set the tone for the fall campaign.
The Democratic Party, for its part, is trying to keep that from happening and is casting McCain's candidacy as a continuation of President Bush's policies. A frequent Democratic refrain: "A vote for John McCain is a vote for a third Bush term on everything from Iraq to the economy."
Seeking an edge
McCain has shifted his focus to the general election since his lock on the nomination became clear last week.
• On party-building, he has sought to shore up his support among the GOP's conservative base and establishment Republicans who view him warily because of his independent streak. While much work remains, McCain has made some strides with even longtime critics coming on board in the name of unity.
"There's no question in my mind this individual should be the next president of the United States, not Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton," former rival Mitt Romney said Thursday, the latest to fall in line and endorse McCain.
• On logistics, McCain is to meet privately with his inner circle this weekend in Arizona to plan money, media, message and the mechanics of turning a pared-down primary campaign operation into a general election organization capable of competing against an energized Democratic Party.
"I intend to run a nationwide strategy," McCain told reporters Thursday. He argued that demographic and political changes require Republicans to play hard in states they previously have not. "I will take my campaign everywhere."
• On his Democratic opponents, McCain's appearance in Vermont, which holds a primary March 4, illustrated his shift toward more pointed criticisms, especially against Obama, winner of the last eight Democratic contests.
His audience was a couple hundred people in a roped-off corner of a chilly airport hangar, including one person who held a sign for the 71-year-old candidate that said: "A Tough Old Timer for Tough Times!! Go John!"
"I proudly stand before you as a conservative Republican," McCain told the crowd.
He predicted a general election campaign of stark differences between himself and either Obama or Clinton.
"I want to lower your taxes. They want to raise your taxes. I want to have less government and they want more government," McCain said, ticking off a list of where they parted ways.
A deficit hawk, McCain also berated Obama and Clinton for directing federal money toward pet projects in their home states, a practice known as earmarking.
He said Clinton had received some $340 million worth of earmarks for New York, while Obama sent home $90 million to Illinois. McCain also castigated Obama for failing to disclose details about his earmarks.
"Is that transparency in government? I don't think so," McCain said. "Examine my record on earmark and pork-barrel projects and you will see a big fat zero."
Speaking later to reporters, McCain said Obama's economic plan was "lacking in a lot of specifics" and renewed his criticism that Obama is "the most liberal senator." He sidestepped a question on whether Obama was qualified to be president.
McCain's sharper tone first emerged in a victory speech Tuesday, as he swept primaries in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., in which he singled out Obama without naming him.
"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. It is a platitude," McCain said, jabbing Obama's inspirational pitch. Then, he stole the Illinois senator's campaign slogan, telling supporters: "I am fired up and ready to go."
Obama, in turn, has lumped McCain in with Bush by referring to "Bush-McCain Republicans" and arguing that McCain's national security and economic policies are "bound to the failed policies of the past."
At one point, Obama noted that McCain twice opposed Bush's tax cuts but now supports making them permanent and said: "Somewhere along the line he traded those principles for his party's nomination and now he is for those tax cuts."