By CHARLES BABINGTON
Associated Press Writer
BANGOR, Maine (AP) — John McCain’s emergence as the probable Republican presidential nominee is reshaping the Democratic contest, prompting Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to cast themselves as best-suited to defeat him, and focusing their debate on issues they figure will play specifically to his strengths and weaknesses.
In virtually identical language to separate crowds Saturday in Maine, Clinton and Obama urged Democrats to think carefully about which of them is more likely to vanquish McCain this fall. They drew opposite conclusions, of course. But they left no doubt that McCain is forcing them to recalibrate their pitches to primary voters.
The two reminded Democrats about McCain again Saturday night in separate speeches to a party fundraising dinner in Richmond, Va. Obama, fresh off a three-state sweep of Nebraska, Washington state and Louisiana, said McCain decided to “embrace the failed policies of George Bush’s Washington.”
Obama and Clinton emphasize different aspects of McCain, selecting those they feel offer the best comparison to their own profiles. For Clinton, it is McCain’s toughness and experience, attributes that the New York senator and former first lady claims to match or surpass.
“I think I can go toe-to-toe with John McCain every single day,” she said, indirectly alluding to the tough hide she developed by coping with the Whitewater affair, sex scandals and other controversies of her husband’s eight-year administration.
Obama, 46 and serving his first Senate term from Illinois, comes at it differently. He portrays his relative youth and modest experience as a refreshing contrast to McCain’s — and to Clinton’s long-standing ties to a Washington culture that many voters seem eager to forget.
In what might be seen as a two-edged reference to McCain’s age, 71, Obama often salutes the Vietnam War hero’s “half century of service” to his country.
More important for Obama is the Iraq war issue. He lumps Clinton, 60, with McCain’s gung-ho support of the war because both voted in 2002 to authorize military force against Saddam Hussein.
“It’s going to be a lot easier for me to have that debate with John McCain than Senator Clinton, because she supported the war,” Obama said Saturday, in a phrase he uses almost daily. He always notes that he opposed the Iraq invasion from the start.
McCain’s triumph over once-potent GOP rivals such as Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani presents a tricky challenge, and opportunity, for Clinton and Obama.
They must portray him as a formidable candidate who will win in November unless Democrats choose their nominee wisely. But they also must highlight vulnerabilities they arguably can best exploit, assuring Democrats of a winning strategy this fall.
In other words, Clinton and Obama must run against two people at once: McCain, who in turn serves as Clinton’s best argument against Obama, and vice versa.
Clinton performed the two-step Saturday in Orono, Maine. She alluded to McCain’s “legendary background” as a war hero, political renegade and critic of pork-barrel spending.
Implying that Obama is unprepared for a rough-and-tumble campaign against such a formidable foe, she said: “I’ve been vetted, tested and proven as a winning candidate against tough opposition,” and “that’s a big advantage in the general election.”
The McCain campaign “will make this about national security,” Clinton said, so it’s “imperative we have a Democratic candidate people can imagine as a commander in chief standing there with Senator McCain.”
But she also found fault with McCain, saying he would make an open-ended commitment to keeping troops in Iraq and knew little about economic problems facing middle class families.
Obama, campaigning in Bangor, Me., hit McCain directly for first opposing, and then embracing, President Bush’s major tax cuts, which especially benefited upper-income Americans.
He tried to undercut McCain’s criticisms of spending earmarks, saying, “it was his party” under Bush “that passed the biggest increase in pork-barrel spending” in history.
Some polls suggest that Obama would fare better against McCain, a notion that Clinton disputed this weekend. She told reporters she was attracting voters that a Democrat “needs to draw from to establish a strong lead against Senator McCain — voters making less than $50,000, Latino voters, women, which has always been part of the Democratic nominee’s base.”
Obama, of course, said the polls are accurate because Clinton’s longevity in Washington and her support of the Iraq invasion offer too little contrast to McCain.
Oddly enough, McCain has warmer personal relations with Clinton and Obama than with many of his Republican Senate colleagues. He and Clinton reportedly engaged in a vodka-drinking contest during a 2004 trip to Estonia.
His relationship with Obama is a bit pricklier. When Obama seemed to part ways unexpectedly with McCain on a lobbying restrictions bill two years ago, the Republican publicly accused him of “self-interested partisan posturing.” Obama called McCain “cranky.”
Soon, the two men were laughing and clapping each other’s shoulders in the Capitol as TV news cameras whirred.
Regardless which Democrat prevails this year, such chumminess is almost certainly doomed in the fall.
Associated Press Writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.
By CHARLES BABINGTON
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