The Republican nominee-in-waiting is increasingly uttering campaign trail criticisms, previewing likely themes and laying the foundation for an eventual full-blown effort to try to ill define — and derail — his expected Democratic rival.
"He does not have the knowledge or experience to make the judgments" on Iraq and other issues, McCain, a four-term senator, said late Wednesday — as he does almost daily now.
The sweeping claim that Obama is unprepared to lead the country and incapable of making necessary tough decisions reminds voters that the Illinois senator is in the midst of his first term — and also insinuates that he's too young to be president at age 46.
These days, it's rare for McCain to pass up an opportunity to make the inexperience argument, or to cast Obama as a big-government liberal Democrat, as he tries to start a negative narrative about Obama before he has secured his party's nomination.
Obama, not surprisingly, always dismisses McCain's characterizations.
He, in turn, tries to turn the tables on the four-term Arizona senator by arguing that, as the public desires change, the Republican offers nothing more than the continuation of President Bush's unpopular policies. Obama often lauds McCain's years of military service and mentions his decades in the Senate, a suggestion that McCain as a creature of Washington — and an implicit reminder that the Republican, at age 71, is seeking to be the oldest elected first-term president.
"We face an opponent, John McCain, who arrived in Washington nearly three decades ago as a Vietnam War hero, and earned an admirable reputation for straight talk and occasional independence from his party," Obama said earlier this month. "But this year's Republican primary was a contest to see which candidate could out-Bush the other, and that is the contest John McCain won."
Over the next six months, both McCain and Obama will seek to define themselves positively and each other negatively as they try to plant lasting impressions in voters' minds. Experience and change, age and race — Obama is seeking to become the first black president — all will be factors in the expected McCain-Obama matchup, as will vast differences in their policy positions.
For now, McCain's approach is somewhat scattershot; he appears to simply take advantage of openings Obama seems to create. A more deliberate effort, almost certainly with TV ads, is certain to follow in the coming weeks or months. McCain gave a glimpse of his newfound zeal to assail Obama at events this week.
During a Memorial Day speech in New Mexico, McCain suggested that Obama took a politically expedient position on a veterans bill. A day later in a nuclear nonproliferation speech in Colorado, McCain slapped at Obama for saying he'd be willing to meet with the leaders of rogue states like North Korea and Iran. He didn't name Obama in either case but the references were clear.
McCain was far more direct Wednesday.
He opened a town-hall style event in Nevada with a lengthy critique of Obama's competency on foreign policy, and questioned his leadership abilities. He again hammered Obama, who has called for a troop pullout, for last visiting Iraq in 2006.
"This is about leadership and learning," McCain said. "We've got to show him the facts on the ground."
He also asserted that Obama is more willing to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad than with Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
Additionally, McCain raised Obama's chairmanship of a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subcommittee and said: "He has not held one single hearing on Afghanistan where young Americans are in harm's way as we speak. My friends, this is about leadership."
Taking questions, McCain sprinkled other jabs at Obama in his responses.
"One of the differences between me and Senator Obama is that he wants to continue this spending spree," McCain said, dinging the Democrat for voting in favor of a farm bill that included billions of dollars for special projects.
Asked about education, McCain went off topic and used the opportunity to lecture Obama again on leadership: "Listen and learn. Listen and learn. That's what great commanders do. That's what great leaders do. You listen and you learn."
McCain also had a ready response when pressed about rising health care costs: "It's another significant difference between myself and Senator Obama. I am not going to dictate that the government decide what your health care is going to be."
Later, at a news conference in Los Angeles, McCain defended his campaign's refusal to allow reporters to attend fundraisers by saying donors request the privacy.
Then, he went after Obama, referencing his comment in a closed-door fundraiser that small-town people are bitter and, thus, cling to guns and religion. Said McCain: "I say the same thing in fundraisers and closed events as I do in open events."