A long Democratic battle doesn’t automatically help the Republicans. In fact, it hurts the Republicans in certain ways. Mr. McCain becomes less interesting to the media. Stories about him move off page one and grow smaller. TV coverage becomes spotty and short. There are not yet big and deep and unbridgeable differences between the two Democrats and there is plenty of time to heal most wounds (except, perhaps among the young if Mrs. Clinton were to win). Continuing to build a profile and lay the predicate for the short fall campaign against either Democrat becomes the challenge for Mr. McCain while the Democrats battle it out.
So what must Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton do, especially in the seven weeks before Pennsylvania?
Both need to focus on Mr. Obama’s biggest weaknesses. One is the Illinois senator’s claim to be the new “post-partisan” leader to bring Republicans and Democrats together. Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton have earned reputations for doing that, though Mrs. Clinton rarely mentions it. Mr. Obama has no real record of voting and working across party lines on high profile issues like judges, immigration, intelligence reform, troop funding and energy.
Both can ask why Mr. Obama has failed to engage on these issues since his election to the Senate, while they have well-earned scars from tackling many of them.
Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton also need to continue highlighting Mr. Obama’s lack of experience. Mrs. Clinton’s surrogates and ads effectively hammered him on this. But voters were also encouraged in a subtle way by Mr. Obama himself to take a second look. His inspiring, but nearly substance-free, rhetoric is now raising questions. Sure, his Web site has position papers drafted by academic geeks galore, but voters may ask: “What has he done?”
Mrs. Clinton also must show more of the personal warmth and humor that came across in appearances on Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show and Fox. She needs to be disciplined. And she needs to stop worrying about appearing to be to the right of Mr. Obama.
Take, for example, Mr. Obama’s declaration that “true patriotism” consists of speaking out on the issues, not wearing a flag lapel pin, a practice he has given up. Mrs. Clinton could say people can do both and if Sen. Obama decided not to wear a flag pin, he shouldn’t question the “true patriotism” of those who chose to wear one. The blue-collar/lunch-pail crowd who’ve given Mrs. Clinton critical support would respond to that.
Mr. McCain, on the other hand, will have to work harder to get attention and prepare for the general election. And without a specific opponent, his principal focus should be on himself.
He needs to share a personal narrative about his life, values and inner beliefs in a way that is often uncomfortable to this private man. He must also follow through on his pledge of Tuesday night to carry his fight to every community and corner of America. It was a smart thing to say; it is a critical thing to do. Voters want candidates to ask for the vote of every American, not just the people who look and sound like the candidate.