As the Dust Settles, it’s About to Get Ugly

So that’s it. Eighteen months after it began, the primary season is (finally) over, with John McCain and Barack Obama emerging on top. And, though the “real” campaign hasn’t truly started yet, Obama and McCain seem to be getting ready for a hard fight from now until November.

Obama came out swinging in his victory speech Tuesday night (in, significantly, the same arena that will host the Republican convention in September) – he went after McCain, basically saying that a vote for the Arizona Senator was a vote for a third Bush term:

While John McCain can legitimately tout moments of independence from his party in the past, such independence has not been the hallmark of his presidential campaign. It’s not change when John McCain decided to stand with George Bush 95 percent of the time, as he did in the Senate last year. It’s not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college… So I’ll say this: There are many words to describe John McCain’s attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush’s policies as bipartisan and new, but ‘change’ is not one of them.”

The feelings seem to be mutual in the McCain camp – the following is a part of his speech on the same night:

Senator Obama might criticize special interests that give more money to Republicans. But you won’t often see him take on those that favor him. If America is going to achieve energy independence, we need a President with a record of putting the nation’s interests before the special interests of either party. I have that record. Senator Obama does not.”

November 4th is in a little less than five months, and the message from these speeches seems to be, “take cover.” For John McCain, look out for attacks from the left for being too aligned with the President, as we saw Barack Obama do on Tuesday. McCain’s record on the war – especially his “100 years” comment, which has already worked its way into a DNC ad – will probably haunt him as he tries to secure the vote of moderate democrats and centrists who have turned against the war in the past few years.

He’ll be facing criticism from the other side as well, since McCain’s credentials as a “true conservative” have often come into doubt. Actions like not voting for President Bush in 2000 and being considered as a running mate for John Kerry in 2004, mean that Senator McCain will work hard to earn support from the conservative base.

Although he’ll probably have the backing of a unified party by November, Barack Obama will face equal amounts of mudslinging in the months to come. Think about all the stories that emerged since his campaign started: Jeremiah Wright, the “madrasa” (that wasn’t actually a madrasa), and the “bittergate” fiasco to name a few. Then consider this: how long until “God damn America” and “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” get slapped onto a direct mail campaign from a conservative 527?

But although both of these candidates have a tough road ahead (not even taking into account what they might say about each other), there’s a way to dodge these attacks. For McCain, spend this summer building a base – don’t worry about centrists until after the convention, what you need to do is get back to basics. Take the Bush strategy from 2004: get the conservative crowd behind you, and go from there with a big (and reliable) part of the electorate. A running mate that’s well-liked by the religious right won’t hurt either…

As for moderate voters, keep the President at arm’s length – create a new economic plan (I know, you “don’t know much about the economy,” but that’s what advisors are for) that can draw voters with what everyone agrees is the most important issue of the campaign.

For Barack Obama, don’t take the John Kerry strategy of “ignore them and they’ll go away.” When Kerry did that in 2004, he opened up the door to attacks that he could have easily proven false, had he reacted – in the end, that decision doomed his campaign. Instead, go after the attacks when (not if) you get “swift boated” this fall, and show their makers that you’re not just going to act like they don’t exist.

As the “real” campaigns begin it seems like both of these candidates know what’s coming. Republicans have begun to accept that races in the House and Senate probably won’t go well for them in November, and that Democrats are probably going to keep control of the Legislative branch. This election has been called the most important in decades, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the hardest ever fought. The primaries are over, the gloves are off, and neither party can afford to loose. Like I said earlier – take cover.

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