The Presidential Candidates Take Their Opening Shots
Another big week in presidential politics, as both Barack Obama and John McCain are advertising now in battleground states, the two will continue battling over energy policy, Obama will campaign with Hillary Clinton for the first time and integrate much of her fundraising machine into his, and McCain makes some adjustments to his campaign in the wake of some concern from Republican political pros. We'll also see what, if any, effect there is from yesterday's unprecedented summit in Saudi Arabia of oil producers and consumers.
First to how what Obama and Clinton will do this week, as the two work to heal the breach in the Democratic Party caused by their long, if foreordained, primary battle. Clinton has been on vacation since losing the nomination fight to Obama, and will return to the Senate at the beginning of the week. At the end of the week, she and Obama will campaign together publicly, and will meet with many of her top fundraisers to integrate them into the Obama campaign. That process is already underway. In fact, there will be a big unity fundraising event -- with heavy assistance from top Clinton fundraisers -- for Obama and the Democratic National Committee Tuesday night at the LA Music Center. It looks like around $5 million will be raised.
Meanwhile, a number of political pros in the Republican Party are concerned about the direction of the McCain campaign. The campaign has been suffering from conceptual incoherency, and many Republican insiders are deeply concerned. One of the top Republican consultants in the country put it this way in a conversation with me: "They're stuck like flypaper to the president. Every time they start to move away, McCain turns around and gets closer to Bush." McCain senior advisor Steve Schmidt, Arnold Schwarzenegger's re-election campaign manager, is leaving the candidate's side to take on a bigger operational role at McCain campaign headquarters.
As this was brewing, a politician McCain has been wooing decided last week to defend Obama from some of the most sensational charges against him. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the former Republican-turned-independent, a billionaire media mogul who is perhaps the leading Jewish-American politician, denounced what he calls a "whisper campaign" in some elements of the Jewish community linking Barack Obama to Islam. Speaking Friday in Florida at the breakfast meeting of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, Bloomberg called the effort "wedge politics at its worst, and we have to reject it loudly, clearly and unequivocally. Let's call those rumors what they are: Lies."
Bloomberg, a close friend and ally of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, said the whisper campaign is "cloaked in concern for Israel, but the real concern is about partisan politics. Israel is just being used as a pawn, which is not that surprising, since some people are willing to stoop to any level to win an election."
The TV ad wars are fully engaged between the two candidates, with Barack Obama's first general election ad up now in 18 states, nearly twice as many as the 10 John McCain is up in.
What is Obama doing? Three very big things, explained by various metaphors.
Obama is calming the waters with regard to his unusual background, identifying himself and his life story with core American values. He is spreading the field, to borrow a term from sports parlance, advertising in many states never contested by a Democratic presidential candidate, forcing McCain to respond if he can. And he is flooding the zone, as the new ad comes immediately upon the heels of Obama's Thursday announcement that he will eschew public financing for the general election, relying instead on his massive Internet-based small donor fundraising machine and integrating elements of the Clinton fundraising machine. (Yes, Obama has reneged by opting out of public financing. His campaign never thought it could break all the primary fundraising records. He'll brandish his unprecedented success with small donors on the Internet as a sort of pseudo-public financing, to blunt criticism.)
While McCain will make do with $84 million in public funding, along with whatever his Republican allies raise for other operations on his behalf, Obama will have most of the ancillary stuff PLUS at likely a three to one edge in spending by their respective official campaign organizations. In other words, Obama will likely be able to spend more in each state he decides to contest, including McCain's must-win battleground states such as the big two of the last election, Ohio and Florida. And he can go into some Republican states and put them into play, forcing McCain to spend his much scarcer resources to defend what should be his own electoral base. In fact, he's doing this now in Georgia, where a new poll shows him only one point behind. He also, for example, has slight edges in recent polls in such usually Republican states as Colorado and Virginia.
As Obama makes these moves, McCain's advertising strategy has a certain conceptual incoherence, with McCain having run two very different ads in the same markets in the past two weeks, striving to show independence from George W. Bush while actually changing key policy positions to those of the president.
Obama's ad is 60 seconds long. John McCain's ad is 30 seconds long. Obama is playing in 18 states: Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Virginia.
McCain is playing in 10 states: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Missouri.
With oil prices near record highs, and gasoline prices at record highs, the two campaigns will continue fighting this week about energy policy. Frankly, neither candidate has a particularly compelling policy.
Obama has been talking about a windfall profits tax on the oil companies. But that won't bring down the price of oil, which is set on globalized markets. Nor will it bring down the price of gasoline. It might actually increase it. Obama could rebate the proceeds of the tax to consumers, but that won't solve the problem.
McCain has been talking about a federal gas tax holiday. Now he wants to open up more offshore oil drilling, a sharp reversal in his thinking, and has hinted about the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge.
But the gas tax holiday would make on the slightest dent in the price at the pump, and could easily be swamped by future price increases. Meanwhile, the highways get a little worse due to the lack of funds.
And offshore drilling? In addition to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, one of McCain's biggest backers, every coastal state governor but one opposes McCain's move to open up more offshore oil drilling. While the idea of offshore oil drilling may sound, at first blush, like a common sense solution to the present crisis to many voters, it isn't. It would take many years to even start that drilling. And in any event, there's not enough supply there to make much of a dent in the price of oil. Remember, it's a global market.
McCain does call for more use of nuclear power. Countries like France and Japan swear by it, and with new tech have had no problems. But that has nothing to do with the oil and gasoline crises.
Now the two candidates are starting to talk about the rule of speculation in driving up the price of oil.
Barack Obama is going to start getting at one of the likely causes of the record run-up in oil and gasoline prices: speculation in unregulated markets. Yesterday, his campaign rolled out an initiative to end the so-called "Enron loophole" (inserted into federal law through the efforts of McCain advisors Phil and Wendy Gramm).
The move is led by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a former Wall Street tycoon. This is hardly the only cause, but it looks like one of them.
McCain's campaign says that Obama is only following his lead in denouncing speculation in the oil futures markets. But those denunciations were mostly in the past, and he hasn't championed recent legislative moves.
What the candidates intend to do about other causes of the price run-up, such as the record low of the dollar against the euro and the geopolitical risk premium, remains to be seen.
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