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McCain vs. Obama: 'Watch and learn' campaign

A McCain-Obama general election matchup would have the potential to change the way we look at presidential campaigns.
/ Source: National Journal

Imagine: Republicans competing in California and New York, and Democrats running ads in Georgia and Virginia. Outspoken wives making headlines independent of their husbands' campaigns. Nominees wincing through photo-ops alongside revered party leaders with whom they've had touchy pasts. Frank conversations about race and age.

Welcome to vs. , an unlikely matchup that inched closer to inevitability Tuesday when Obama his 10th straight post-Super Tuesday victory by digging deeper into 's base. While the media's love affair with Obama appears to be waning right on cue, Clinton faces a new challenge: math. She doesn't just need to win majorities in Texas and Ohio; she has to win nearly 60 percent to secure the pledged delegates she'll need to remain competitive.

Barring such a feat, we face a historic race that might not just yield an unprecedented president, but could change the way we look at presidential campaigns.

With that in mind, here are 10 things about McCain vs. Obama we should all watch closely as we decide whether the race, already unprecedented in so many ways, lives up to its billing or turns into just another exercise in electing a president.

Geography: In perhaps the most striking contrast to recent campaigns, Obama and McCain are poised to redraw the electoral map. Polls show McCain is currently competitive in traditionally blue states like New York, New Jersey and California -- where Gov. (Defense Secretary?) Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bigger-than-life supporter. Obama, meanwhile, could generate unprecedented turnout among black voters in Southern states. (The unknown here is whether Obama's presence on the ballot stirs a white voter backlash. It didn't in the Democratic primary.) Such a dynamic wouldn't just change the colors on the map; it would change the contours of the campaign and the issues the candidates debate.

Age: Twenty-five. That's the number of years separating McCain, 71, from Obama, 46. It's the largest-ever age difference of major-party nominees. They're both August babies, but their matchup is more likely to be described as, well, May-December. Speaking in Virginia last week, McCain artfully confronted this issue (considered a weakness in a "change" election) by characterizing Obama as young and naïve. McCain's next big test will be picking a running mate who's young -- but not too young.

Race: It's the year's most pressing question: Will America elect a black president? Not: Is America ready to elect a black president? (Voters tell pollsters it is.) That's an aspirational question, largely irrelevant to Obama's prospects. We won't know the answer until Election Day. He may have won the support of Democrats, including rural, white voters in the South and other red states. But his new target audience creates a more complicated calculation.

Ethics: More so than other recent nominees, both Obama and McCain have benefited from characterizing themselves as ardent reformers of Washington ethics, an appeal that helped them draw heavily from independent voters in early primaries. But as we see in reports about Obama's relationship with Antoin Rezko and a New York Times story today on McCain's questionable relationship with a female lobbyist that the media already is aggressively questioning those characterizations. If ethics becomes a top priority for voters, as it was in 2006, how would each nominee seek to challenge the credentials of the other when they've largely been in agreement on ethics so far?

Money: If the primaries are any indication, Democrats will raise far more money than Republicans for the first time ever. Just this week, for example, Obama reported raising $36 million during January to McCain's $12 million. The 3-to-1 disparity produced a new war of words, with McCain criticizing Obama for refusing to abide by his promise to stay within the public financing system. Such a financial advantage could allow Obama to put traditional red states in play (see "Geography").

Wives: We saw the first glimpse of Cindy vs. Michelle this week, when Mrs. McCain decided to hit back at Mrs. Obama's poorly worded claim that "for the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country." "I'm proud of my country. I don't know about you -- if you heard those words earlier -- I'm very proud of my country," said Cindy McCain, before shrugging off the suggestion that she was getting in a dig. What's next from these outspoken would-be first ladies?

Issues (war/economy): McCain, who is currently on the wrong side of both these issues based on public polling, faces a key challenge to reverse that tide. Unfortunately for him, this may prove to be his undoing; faced with an unpopular war and an economic downturn, voters appear to be in no mood to stay the course.

Bush: A key question for McCain: How does he deploy the sitting president who, while still popular within the conservative base he desperately needs to secure, remains widely unpopular across the country and among those all-important independent voters? The answer: Bush will remain the fundraiser in chief for his party's nominee but is unlikely to play a visible role in the campaign. Indeed, McCain and Bush are more likely to appear together in Democratic ads than GOP ones.

The Clintons: A key question for Obama: How does the "change" candidate deploy a former president and his senator wife who, while still popular within the Democratic Party, are controversial figures in many parts of the country? The primary campaign has bruised the cordial but brief relationship they'd had, aides say, and while all players have vowed to support the party's nominee, it's unclear to what extent Obama wants that support. As Obama said at the beginning of a recent CNN debate in Los Angeles, "I was friends with Hillary Clinton before this campaign, and I will be friends with her after it's over." Whether that means he'll ask the Clintons to campaign under his banner of "change" is another question.

Independents: They both want them. But they each face different hurdles to win them over. McCain carried Wisconsin this week by winning big among Republicans, for once. But as we first saw in Virginia, his showing among independents was weak. Why? Obama, whose strength among swingers presents a serious problem for Republicans. Then again, McCain has credibility among independent voters that Clinton does not, so drawing independents to his column this fall could prove much harder than it has been so far this winter. Also, what happens to this dual courtship if Mike Bloomberg runs?