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Finally, the Real Campaign Begins

Now that Barack Obama, as expected, is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, he and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain are off and running in the general election. This week, Obama, who campaigned in new swing state Virginia last Thursday, embarks on a two-week tour of old and new general election battleground states, focusing on growing popular concern about the economic downturn. McCain, for his part, has launched a swing state TV advertising campaign, emphasizing his and his family’s naval service and his priority of keeping America safe. One key question for Obama now that he is finally free of the hard-fought Democratic contest with Hillary Clinton, once the overwhelming favorite, is how quickly and how thoroughly her voters come over to him.

Much has been made of fully a quarter of them telling pollsters that they will vote for McCain. But I recall that half of McCain’s backers in 2000, just after he lost to George W. Bush, said they would never vote for Bush. Most of them changed their minds by November, and Bush of course became the president.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a staunch backer of Hillary who also urged her to end her campaign, played peacemaker, hosting a secret Obama-Clinton meeting at her home in Washington.

On Saturday, Hillary Clinton came out strongly for Obama, in one of the best speeches she’s ever given, firmly endorsing him and exhorting her supporters to work for him and vote for him.

Of course, Clinton wants to be Obama’s running mate. I thought at first that she didn’t, and wrote that in my Game Day coverage last Tuesday. But I was quickly disabused of that notion by an old friend of the Clintons, who told me that Hillary definitely wants to be Obama’s vice president, and that Bill had come up with the idea weeks earlier. Then later that night, with her non-concession speech, it became apparent that Hillary was trying to force her way onto the Obama ticket, a move which failed, at least for now.

Obama has wrested control of the national Democratic Party away from the Clintons, who dominated it for the previous 16 years. If Hillary is on the ticket, they retain an ownership interest in the party, albeit a minority ownership interest. How that might work, with Obama dealing not only with the strong-willed Hillary but also the hard-to-control Bill, is another question.

But there will be plenty of time for speculation about running mates for both Obama and McCain. The Democrats don’t meet in Denver until late August; the Republicans don’t meet in St. Paul until early September. In addition to launching his national tour — today Obama campaigns in North Carolina (a state he can, with his superior fundraising machine, at least force the Republicans to defend) and Missouri — Obama is hiring top operatives to work with Michelle Obama and to deal with Internet rumors about him.

For months, I was hearing from sources, some of them around the Clinton campaign, that Obama’s candidacy was just about to be destroyed by new revelations about him. But time passed, Obama kept getting closer to the nomination, and it became obvious that nothing like that had happened.

Last week, there was a bizarre situation centering around a claim made by a very shrill, ostensibly pro-Hillary website that Michelle Obama had been at an event at Trinity Church with Louis Farrakhan, and had engaged in a lengthy condemnation of “whitey.” And that tape, or maybe a DVD, of this was just about to be produced. The story then kept changing, as key details like who/what/when shifted around.

The story got more attention on the right than on the left, with many hoping that this might be it for Obama. But it was finally debunked by a libertarian writer for Reason. I don’t think this sort of thing is going to bring down Obama. It’s not that kind of year. But clearly Obama, who has the resources to do many things that past Democratic candidates have not, wants to avoid distractions as he focuses on widespread popular concerns about the economy, the war, and so forth.

It’s McCain’s challenge this week to try to define the terms of the election, even as most of the focus is on Obama with his new national tour. With the keys to victory lying in the hands of independent and moderate voters, McCain has to distance himself from President Bush — who is near historic levels of presidential unpopularity — find an economic message, and define the ongoing presence in Iraq as key to preventing the rise of Islamic jihadism. And he has to do it while hanging on to conservative base voters, many of whom are upset that a candidate further to the right is not the nominee.

McCain’s new TV ad, trying to shift focus back to security from the economic woes that have taken center stage, is a start.

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