Obama Turns his Focus to the General Election and McCain

Obama and McCain are going full force into the general election

Obama went to Capitol Hill the day after his victory.

Obama went to Capitol Hill the day after his victory.


Complicating Obama's efforts at reaching out, Clinton and her aides floated the idea publicly that she was willing to accept the vice presidential slot on Obama's ticket. This frustrated and miffed some Democratic strategists, who felt that she was overstepping her bounds. Obama advisers said privately that their candidate wouldn't be strong-armed or maneuvered into choosing her. Obama said he would bide his time before making his selection, and he quickly announced the formation of a panel of supporters, including Caroline Kennedy, who will create a list of possible running mates. This served notice that he would wait until emotions cooled before making his decision and took a bit of the pressure off.

Clinton is under consideration. But some Obama loyalists said he might strengthen his chances of defeating McCain if he named someone with more national security or military experience than Clinton has to compensate for one of Obama's vulnerabilities as a foreign-policy neophyte. This could argue for picking Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, or New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former United Nations ambassador who is also Hispanic.

Obama's campaign has been ground-breaking in several ways beyond moving across a racial divide. He raised more money than any candidate in history, an estimated $265 million from 1.5 million people, including many small donors on the Internet. His message of conciliation and change mobilized young voters and African-Americans in record numbers. Even Republican strategists admit that Obama could assemble an unusual winning coalition this fall of traditional Democrats, the young, the affluent, African-Americans, antiwar activists, independents, and millions of others yearning for change.

But Obama also faces some big challenges. McCain is harshly criticizing his lack of national security credentials—a big concern among voters. Stung, Obama plans trips to Iraq and possibly Europe in a few weeks.

Town hall. In addition, McCain and his team are eager to outmaneuver him politically. The day after Obama locked up the Democratic nomination, McCain challenged Obama to join him for at least 10 joint town hall meetings around the country, with questions asked by citizens and no moderator or panel of reporters.

At first blush, this proposal seemed an interesting way to debate the issues, but it also plays to McCain's strength. He enjoys the town-hall format more than any other form of public communication, and he isn't nearly as effective as Obama in formal debates or in giving speeches. Further, joint town-hall meetings would give McCain extensive visibility and might reduce the advantage Obama would have in paid TV advertising because of his enormous ability to raise money. Obama said he would participate in at least three formal debates with McCain but didn't commit to the town-hall format. But his aides said the idea is interesting and Obama could eventually agree to it.

And, despite the strides the country has made, Obama's racial background still could be a significant drawback. Some voters have told pollsters that they won't vote for a black man. In addition, many working-class whites and seniors tell pollsters it's not race that bothers them but the perception that Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School who is given to elegant suits and high-flown turns of phrase, seems to be an elitist who doesn't understand their everyday lives.

Advisers to McCain say he will make an unrelenting push to court such voters, particularly moderate and conservative Democrats who backed Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984 and are again disaffected with their party. "If we're going to win this election, it will be because we won Reagan Democrats," says a key McCain strategist. He adds that, since the economy isn't doing well, the argument probably will have to be based on "values issues," such as patriotism, religious faith, and opposition to gay marriage and abortion, in addition to supporting troops and winning the war in Iraq.