Now, Democrats target McCain

The party's 30-second spot highlights US economic woes.

j. scott applewhite/ap/file
On the attack: Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean recently said Republicans don’t have an effective plan to help the US economy.
amy collins/the selma times-journal/ap

The announcement got buried in the avalanche of news coverage ahead of Tuesday's Democratic primary in Pennsylvania. But on the same day that Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton finished another lap in their slog for the nomination, the national Democratic Party launched its first television ad against the man one of them will face in November.

The 30-second spot, which will air for three weeks on CNN and MSNBC and targets John McCain's economic views, reflects a growing sense among Democratic leaders that the prolonged nomination fight is giving Senator McCain a free pass for too long.

The ad coincides with a set of other Democratic Party efforts this week to counter the Arizona senator, including a national grass-roots door-knocking effort and a series of "counter-activities" near McCain campaign stops and fundraisers.

When McCain visits Oklahoma Friday, for instance, the state's Democratic Party will host a "No Third Bush Term" rally and a union hall event with $2.30 hot dogs – a poke at McCain's $2,300-a-plate fundraiser that night at a nearby Hilton.

"We're at the point where we're not waiting for the general election," says Karen Finney, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

"Chairman [Howard] Dean recognizes that while it is important that the primary continue between Senators Clinton and Obama, the DNC has really got to step up its efforts to define John McCain," she says. "We want to make sure that he doesn't have the opportunity to get so far out ahead that we can't catch up."

That remains unlikely for now. With President Bush's low approval ratings and voters' displeasure with the economy and war in Iraq, Democrats are in a strong position for November.

But the increasingly negative battle for the Democratic nomination has driven up the unfavorable ratings of both Obama and Clinton, while freeing McCain to unite his party and introduce himself to a wider group of voters with a minimum of distractions.

Earlier this month, he took a biographical tour of key places in his life, from his high school in Alexandria, Va., to the Jacksonville, Fla., airfield he returned to after his release from a Vietnamese POW camp. This past week, he has courted African-Americans, blue-collar workers, and other voters often left off the GOP map with a tour of "forgotten places" like Selma, Ala.; Youngstown, Ohio; and New Orleans' Ninth Ward.

McCain sewed up the GOP nomination after dispatching with the last of his rivals on March 4.

"It is a unique time when you don't have a [primary] opponent," says Brian Rogers, a McCain spokesman. "It's an opportunity that we're trying to take advantage of" by showcasing McCain's life story and visiting Democratic strongholds.

But that may become harder now as the Democrats – with or without a nominee – try to blunt his appeal. The new television ad and other efforts starting this week are an outgrowth of focus groups and polling the DNC conducted in 17 swing states in late March.

The party sought to identify what independents and other voters critical to the general election see as McCain's weaknesses and came away with three main lines of attack: that McCain is a continuation of the Bush era; that he is a Washington insider out of touch with ordinary Americans; and that he is not the "straight-talker" his campaign claims, but an opportunist too ready to shift positions on immigration reform, campaign finance, and the Bush tax cuts.

"The McCain campaign likes to say that the McCain brand is well-known," says Ms. Finney. "What we found is that contrary to that, there's a lot swing voters don't know about McCain."

Mr. Rogers, of the McCain campaign, dismissed the ad and other efforts as "typical political attacks and distortion."

The audience for the Democrats' anti-McCain message is not just swing voters, analysts say. Just as important is a Democratic coalition strained by the push and pull of the nomination fight.

"The Democrats face a pretty serious risk that either African-Americans, younger Americans, or blue-collar men are going to be discouraged when their candidate isn't nominated," says Tom Hollihan, an expert on media and politics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "There's a strong motivation to communicate that whether you favored Obama or Clinton, you do have a dog in this fight; that a Republican is your real adversary."

The campaigns of the Democratic candidates have invoked McCain, too, but often in the context of which is better equipped to defeat him in November.

In recent days, however, Clinton and Obama appear to be taking more frequent aim at McCain's record. Obama named him no fewer than seven times in his speech conceding Pennsylvania Tuesday night. McCain's economic policy address in Pittsburgh last week occasioned a rare moment of cooperation between the campaigns of the two Democratic candidates. To rebut McCain, the Democratic National Committee convened a conference call for reporters with top economic advisors to both Clinton and Obama.

"That's something the Democratic Party and both of these candidates need to start doing," says Martin Johnson, a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside. "Presumably, they have more in common than they have with McCain and that's got to be a part of their message."

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