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Already, Obama and McCain map fall strategies

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are already drawing up strategies for taking each other on in the general election, focusing on the same groups, campaign aides said.
/ Source: The New York Times

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are already drawing up strategies for taking each other on in the general election, focusing on the same groups — including independent voters and Latinos — and about a dozen states where they think the contest is likely to be decided this fall, campaign aides said.

In a sign of what could be an extremely unusual fall campaign, the two sides said Saturday that they would be open to holding joint forums or unmoderated debates across the country in front of voters through the summer. Mr. Obama, campaigning in Oregon, said that the proposal, floated by Mr. McCain’s advisers, was “a great idea.”

Even before Mr. Obama fully wraps up the Democratic presidential nomination, he and Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, are starting to assemble teams in the key battlegrounds, develop negative advertising and engage each other in earnest on the issues and a combustible mix of other topics, including age and patriotism.

Mr. McCain, of Arizona, will spend the next week delivering a series of speeches on global warming, evidence of his intention to battle Mr. Obama for independent voters, a group the two men have laid claim to. Those voters tend to recoil from hard-edged partisan politics, and presumably would be receptive to the kind of bipartisan forum that Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama seemed open to on Saturday.

Courting independents
Clearly concerned that questions about such things as his association with his former pastor had damaged his standing with independents, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, is likely to embark on a summertime tour intended to highlight the life story that was once central to his appeal. Preliminary plans include a stop in Hawaii, his birthplace, and a major address there at Punchbowl Cemetery, where his maternal grandfather, who fought in World War II, is buried.

Mr. Obama’s campaign is firing up voter-registration efforts and sending troops to Ohio and Pennsylvania, states that he lost in the primaries but that his aides said he must win to capture the White House. Mr. McCain’s advisers said they had tracked Mr. Obama’s struggles with blue-collar voters there and would open campaign headquarters in both states in early June.

Beyond that, aides to the two men said Latino voters would be central to victory in a swath of Western states now viewed as prime battlefields, including Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.

These decisions by Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama to look ahead to the fall reflect their conclusion that it is only a matter of time before Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York steps away from the fight for the Democratic nomination.

Mr. McCain is looking first to states where President Bush narrowly lost in 2004 and where Mr. Obama lost primaries, starting with New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. Mr. Obama is looking to states where he won caucuses and primaries — including some, like Virginia, that have been solidly Republican in recent presidential elections — as well as others where he has organizations in place.

Ads aimed at undercutting
And the two sides have produced television advertisements that will be rolled out as soon as the Democratic contest is officially resolved. These advertisements are directed less at promoting themselves than at undercutting their opponents.

The Republican National Committee is planning a $19.5 million advertising campaign to portray Mr. Obama, 46, as out of touch with the country and too inexperienced to be commander in chief, seeking to put him on the defensive before he can use his financial advantage against Mr. McCain, 71, party officials said.

“In 1984, Ronald Reagan said, ‘I’m not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience,’ ” said Frank Donatelli, the deputy chairman of the Republican National Committee. “Well, we are going to exploit Obama’s youth and inexperience.”

On the Democratic side, Mr. Obama’s aides this week put finishing touches on advertisements intended to tether Mr. McCain to Mr. Bush and chip away at his image as a maverick, an identity that the aides said they found remained strong with voters.

“By November, every voter will know that McCain is offering a third Bush term,” said Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe.

Advisers to Mr. Obama said their research suggested that Mr. McCain, notwithstanding his high profile in American politics for more than a decade, was not well known to many voters. In particular, Mr. Obama’s aides said they would highlight Mr. McCain’s opposition to abortion rights to try to stem the flow of disaffected women who backed Mrs. Clinton in the primaries and whom Mr. McCain’s aides said they would aggressively court.

The strategies reflect a lesson from the 2004 presidential campaign, when top aides to Mr. Bush, some of whom are working for Mr. McCain today, began a well-financed television campaign to define and undercut Senator John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, the moment he became his party’s nominee.

Mr. Obama’s advisers said they were mindful that he had not yet won the nomination and that six contests remained. Still, they said it was crucial to begin engaging Mr. McCain as soon possible.

Independent voters have been critical in presidential elections as the country has become polarized along party lines. What makes this election different is the extent to which Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain have turned to independent voters for support throughout their careers.

Historically, independent voters have responded to specific issues and concerns, in particular an emphasis on government reform and an aversion to overly bitter partisan wrangling. Accordingly, Mr. McCain’s advisers said they would present him as a senator who frequently stepped across the aisle, while portraying Mr. Obama as a down-the-line Democratic voter who is ideologically out of touch with much of the country.

“We believe America is still a slightly right-of-center country, and that is what McCain is,” said Charlie Black, a senior adviser to Mr. McCain. “If you look at Obama’s base and his record, he is a pretty conventional liberal.”

Mr. Obama’s advisers, meanwhile, intend to present Mr. McCain as a product of Washington who moved closer to the Bush administration to win the Republican nomination.

The two men also have sought to build their candidacies around images of reform, unconstrained by traditional political molds. The rivals are openly discussing staging forums across the country to speak directly to voters, an idea that is by any measure unconventional for a general election campaign.

Asked about the idea on Saturday, Mr. Obama told reporters in Oregon, “If I have the opportunity to debate substantive issues before the voters with John McCain, that’s something that I’m going to welcome.”

Hiscpanics drawing attention
Hispanic voters could find themselves drawing more attention from presidential candidates than ever before. Their votes could prove critical in determining whether Democrats capture states like Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico and whether Republicans have any chance of being competitive in California.

Mr. McCain’s identification with legislation that would have permitted some illegal immigrants to attain citizenship, a position he moved away from in the primaries but never renounced, gives him an opportunity to compete for those voters, who except for Cubans in Florida appear to have largely settled into the Democratic camp in recent years.

Mr. Obama also supported measures that would have allowed immigrants to attain citizenship but struggled to win over Hispanic voters in his primary fight, signaling a potential problem for him in the fall campaign. Mr. Obama’s aides said the endorsement by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of the nation’s most prominent Hispanic leaders, could prove more critical in the general election than in the primary.

Both sides say the states clearly in play now include Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington and Wisconsin.

Republicans said they hoped to put New Jersey and possibly California into play; Democrats said African-Americans could make Mr. Obama competitive in Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Mr. Obama’s advisers said they had a strong chance of taking Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Mexico, Ohio and Virginia away from the Republican column.

Mr. Obama has a clear financial advantage. By March 31, Mr. McCain had raised about $80 million and reported about $11 million in cash on hand. Mr. Obama had raised three times as much — about $240 million — and had more than four times as much in the bank.

But the Republican National Committee, which is permitted to spend money on Mr. McCain’s behalf, has raised $31 million, compared with just $6 million by the Democratic National Committee. And Republican officials said they were not concerned about being outspent between now and the conventions.

Disadvantage in Fla., Mich.
Mr. Obama’s advisers said that as a result of the five-month series of primaries and caucuses, he had a nearly national campaign apparatus in place and had identified and registered thousands of new voters. That said, they acknowledged that they were at a disadvantage in two important states — Florida and Michigan — because those states had early primaries in defiance of the Democratic National Committee, and the candidates agreed not to campaign there.

“Organizationally, we have now built very powerful organizations in every state but Michigan and Florida,” Mr. Plouffe said. “That is one huge silver lining to how long this nomination fight has gone on.”

Republicans will seek to portray Mr. Obama as out of touch with many voters on issues like abortion and gay rights. Some of Mr. McCain’s advisers said they also thought that Mr. Obama had displayed a number of vulnerabilities as a candidate that they would seek to exploit: they argued that he was prone to becoming irritated when tired or pressed on tough questions, that he had trouble connecting with voters in smaller settings and that he had run a campaign light on substance.

In the eyes of the Obama campaign, Mr. McCain’s chief weaknesses include continuing to embrace the Iraq war, his support for extending the administration’s tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (he once opposed the idea) and his suggestion that the economy had made “great progress” in the last eight years.

Mr. Obama has said he has no intention of making age — Mr. McCain is 25 years older — an overt issue in the general election campaign. Yet in recent weeks, the Obama campaign has made a point of showing their candidate in settings, on the basketball court, as well as surrounded by his young family, that could be seen as telegraphing the message without explicitly raising the issue.

This article, Already, Obama and McCain originally appeared in The New York Times.