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Is John McCain Bob Dole?

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In the standard Republican playbook, charges of excessive liberalism are typically employed to suggest that a Democratic candidate is a pansy. And, no doubt, the party’s assault on Obama will include insinuations of limp-wristedness, especially compared with McCain in the national-security arena. But Republicans have other objectives in mind, too, when they harp on Obama’s purported left-wingedness.

For a start, they wish to associate him with a static, backward-looking creed. “Obama’s a fantastic candidate in the sense that he understands that this could be a New Frontier election,” Castellanos says. “So we need to take some of the future away from him, and it won’t be hard to do. He talks a great game, but his policies are old-style, Democratic, industrial-age stuff. We just need to rip the wrapping off and show that there’s nothing in the box.”

Similarly, by calling Obama a liberal, the Republicans are impugning his character by calling him a phony. In his recent speech in Washington, Rove, after pummeling Obama as a liar (for what he sees as various biographical embellishments), a would-be tax raiser, and a surrender primate on Iraq, lit into him as a fraud for his pretenses of post-partisan leadership. “During the three years he’s been in the Senate, anytime there has been a big bi-partisan effort”—on judges, terrorist surveillance, war funding, immigration—“where was Senator Obama on any of those big fights? I’ll tell you where he was. He was over there up against the wall, ironically watching everything go on and voting ‘no.’ ”

Naturally, the Republicans’ attempts to define Obama as too liberal will extend to the cultural realm. They will portray him as elitist, effete—highlighting Harvard, Hyde Park, and his gutter balls on the bowling lanes of Pennsylvania. They will tar him as arrogant, pointing to the helpful comment once coughed up by his wife: “Barack is one of the smartest people you will ever encounter who will deign to enter this messy thing called politics.” (Deign to enter?) And, no doubt, they will slam him as insufficiently patriotic, calling attention to everything from his eschewal of an American-flag lapel pin to his failure to put his hand over his heart during the national anthem at a campaign event in Iowa.

Patriotism will also be the Republican entry point into the combustible realm of race. No one close to McCain believes that he intends for his campaign to exploit or exacerbate the black-white divide in any explicit way. But nor does anyone believe we’ve heard the last of the controversy over the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Already a group of conservative activists have posted to YouTube a video splicing together his most incendiary comments with shots of Obama and backed by beats from Public Enemy. Expect more from the shadowy world of 527s that disgorged the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

It would be comforting to dismiss all this as the desperate flailing of a party in decline. But there are signs that the areas Republicans intend to target may prove soft targets. The pollster Scott Rasmussen tells me that Obama is already trailing McCain among white male voters by a whopping margin of 57-33—and that in both swing states and others, such as Virginia, that Democrats hope to capture, there has been “significant deterioration for Obama” and “a dramatic change in McCain’s favor” since the Wright imbroglio erupted.

What makes these developments all the more disconcerting, of course, is that they’re taking place even before the GOP has sunk its teeth into Obama. Not long ago, I’m told, Bill Clinton was talking to a friend about his wife’s rival and made an interesting observation. The way Republicans beat Democrats, he said, is by turning them into caricatures—citing John Kerry, Al Gore, and Dukakis as examples. The reason that he, WJC, had survived is that he’d aggressively labored to deny them the opportunity. He’d been able to say, wait a minute, I don’t fit in the box you’re trying to stick me in. The problem with Obama, Clinton went on, is that he’s tailor-made for the container that the Republicans are devising in which to bury him.

Now, Clinton is hardly a disinterested observer here. Quite the contrary. And it’s worth pointing out that his wife ain’t exactly immune from caricature; the Republican cartoon of her is as vivid and damning as a Thomas Nast rendering. But the argument that Obama would be more easily crated than Hillary is really the only argument that her campaign has left to sway the remaining undecided superdelegates—though the way her people talk about it isn’t usually so blunt.

Instead, they prefer to speak about the electoral map. What they will tell you privately is they believe that if Hillary were the Democratic nominee, she could be confident of holding all the states that Kerry won in 2004, and she’d be well positioned to carry Ohio, Florida, New Mexico, Nevada, and Arkansas as well. Obama, by contrast, in their judgment, would find it impossible to win either Florida or Ohio. Because of his difficulties with blue-collar whites, he would also be hard-pressed to hold Michigan—turning Virginia, Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico into must-have states. Could Obama carry all four versus McCain, a western senator with environmental cred and an aversion to federal spending? Not bloody likely, the Clinton people claim. Thus Hillary’s electability argument in a nutshell.


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