Don't Get Mad, John McCain. Get Serious

Which Hillary Clinton campaign will ­McCain run?

John McCain at a campaign stop in Kansas City, Mo.

John McCain at a campaign stop in Kansas City, Mo.

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At McCain campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia, there's a conviction that the press has turned the presidential election into a game show. "Do voters want an American Idol contest for president?" asks senior adviser Steve Schmidt. "Is this supposed to be the political equivalent of Dancing With the Stars?" He stops for a minute to watch the live coverage of a press conference from the Middle East held by Barack Obama, or "the One," as he is now routinely dubbed in McCainworld. Obama's adventure abroad has turned out to be a tad too excellent.

Never mind, say John McCain's aides. We always knew this was going to be about Obama. We always knew it would take place in a country at a tipping point, fearful about its future, looking for a leader who is steady in a crisis. And, they add, we are "delighted" to make this a referendum on Obama. (Of course, that's better than having an election that is a referendum on President Bush.) If that sounds like a vaguely familiar strategy, it's because Hillary Clinton has already tried it. But here's the question: Which Clinton campaign will McCain run? The one with a clear message and substance, which led to a string of more than a half-dozen victories in the late contests? Or the one that made her entirely unlikable?

So far, McCain is running largely on angry. That is, the initial game plan of Hillary the Scold—in which she claimed that she was the only candidate who had been "vetted," the only one who was truly "electable," the only one ready to be commander in chief. As her campaign belittled what it saw as fawning Obama press coverage, the candidate chided, "Shame on you, Barack Obama," all but sending her opponent into a corner for a timeout. McCain is clearly channeling her frustration when he declares that Obama "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." Ouch.

Getting mad made Clinton look small. McCain just looks mean. So why not try to accentuate what works best for McCain, such as his credentials as someone who has spent a career bucking his party, working across the aisle, trying to fix things? Clinton's populist voice handed her success; McCain as a reformer is his best bet. After all, McCain was a leader in efforts to reform congressional pork-barrel spending, immigration, and ethics. He worked with Democrats on a truce to limit filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. He's against torture. His efforts didn't always pan out, but he never ducked a fight. "He needs to start talking more about how he works across party lines," says a Republican strategist who consults with the campaign. "Then he has to say how Obama has not gotten his hands dirty on any big issue."

Middle ground. It is a point not lost on the newly retooled McCain campaign. If Obama is a risk, as it says, he's also a risk because he has no experience in "taking care of business," which is what voters want. This is a "wrong track" election; around 80 percent of voters say the country is headed in the wrong direction. They think Washington has failed, which is why they want the change Obama promises. But they also want proof that someone can make it happen, which is McCain's opening. He's been anti-Washington and anti-establishment. "We have to show he puts his country first," says a McCain adviser. "Above partisanship."

That's an appealing message to independent voters, and especially the undecided 12 percent of the electorate. It's not going to attract the conservative Republican base, but so what? It doesn't like McCain much anyway. Truth is, a President McCain would most likely have to work with a heavily Democratic Congress. His job now is to convince independents that he can do it—and that the resulting legislation would be more appealing than the variety concocted just by Democrats.

Sure, presidential elections are about character and the comfort level of voters. And sure, the story line about Obama's arrogance is tempting—especially if McCain counterprograms himself as "humble," as one adviser puts it, while "Obama gets up in a stadium like Caesar" at the Democratic convention. Still, it's always more effective for a candidate to discuss what voters care about. They like happy warriors better than angry ones. They respect pols who say: "I've learned the painful lessons about the selfish politics of Washington. I've paid the price for breaking ranks. Now I want to work for you."