Candidates Are Set, But Battle Is Just Beginning

Jun 8, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Forget any talk about a break in the election campaign.
Campaign observers and some consultants are predicting that a messaging and positioning battle will take place in the next eight weeks that could not only define the November election, but determine its results.
They suggest that the end of the presidential primaries could kick off intense maneuvering to define the frame in which the 2008 battle between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain will be fought. It also may kick off some of the campaign’s toughest rhetoric.
In turn, that maneuvering could produce an unusual amount of early TV advertising, though it’s still not clear how much of the fighting will play out in paid media or whether advertising will be purchased mainly in key states or on a national basis.
The McCain campaign has launched ads in some battleground states, and the Obama campaign is expected to launch its post-primary ads as early as this week.
Neither the McCain nor Obama campaigns returned calls for comment, but the observers say that historically, the post-primaries period has been a crucial one for candidates.
Joe Trippi, a senior adviser in Sen. John Edwards’ campaign, pointed to the 2004 Bush campaign’s effort to portray Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry as a “flip-flopper” as the kind of positioning play likely to take place.
“It’s a critical time,” said Mr. Trippi. “It often changes the dynamics of the race. Every one of these races is determined on who defines the race.”
“Every campaign is different,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, who noted the McCain campaign will seek to define Sen. Obama as “too far to the left” and the changes he wants as “radical,” while the Obama campaign has to define Sen. McCain as just a third Bush term.
The Democratic experts suggest there are challenges on both sides.
Joe Slade White, a Democratic consultant who handled Sen. Joe Biden’s campaign in the Democratic primaries, said the Obama campaign needs to recapture the tone that brought out Iowa voters.
“What he needs to do is tell people more about himself. He’s had a remarkable life,” Mr. White said. “He needs to recapture that emotional core that made people want to walk over broken glass to be with him in Iowa. The aura has to be recaptured. It’s not there right now.”
He suggested the burden is on Obama.
“I don’t think it will be won or lost for McCain in this period, but it could be for Obama,” Mr. White said. “People are looking for him to touch emotional buttons. If there is any sense that wind is going out of the sails, or he appeals too broadly, it is going to be a problem. He has got to recapture the edge.”
Mr. Trippi suggests it’s the McCain campaign that needs to be aggressive, but that Democrats need to respond in kind.
“The only way McCain has a shot is if Democrats take a break now. That is the mistake made in the past. We need to define it now on our terms, and don’t let McCain climb out. If Obama can fight for 60 more days, McCain may never climb out of this.”
Mr. White said the McCain campaign needs to “raise doubts” about Sen. Obama, but Mr. Trippi said, “Obama has had the wind at his back. He’s framed the race as change and has issues like gas prices and lobbyists writing energy policy. McCain has a tougher time. It’s more incumbent on him to define the race quickly.”


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