Obama shifts sights to McCain and the general election

The nomination isn't his yet, but his aim now is to unify Democrats.

Michael Lloyd/The Oregonian/AP
Town-hall event: Sen. Barack Obama greeted supporters Saturday at Summit High School in Bend, Ore., and held seven-week-old Carly Cameron.

Hillary who?

OK, Barack Obama has not yet gone that far. But as the lengthy, tiring, roller-coaster race for the Democratic presidential nomination enters its (possible) homestretch, the senator from Illinois increasingly is ignoring the competitor from his own party to focus on presumptive GOP nominee John McCain.

In part, this move likely is intended to be self-fulfilling. By behaving as if he has finally wrapped up the Democratic contest, Senator Obama may generate fresh excitement among his supporters and lure crucial superdelegates into his camp.

But it also probably reflects the Obama campaign's judgment of its actual position. The math is the math, and as the primaries dwindle to a precious few, Hillary Rodham Clinton's chance of winning the nomination has dwindled as well. It's time, perhaps, for Obama to take the first steps of his next long march – the one to November.

"It's going to be an incredible election," says Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, enthusing over the possibility of an Obama-McCain matchup. "One of the best ever."

Of course, the race for the Democratic nomination is not yet actually over. Senator Clinton may do well in upcoming primaries in West Virginia and Kentucky.

Even so, it is unlikely that she will be able to erase Obama's lead among pledged delegates by the end of the primary season. To win, she would need a large margin in so-called superdelegates, party leaders free to vote for whom they choose. But they have been trending Obama's way, and by some tallies he now leads in the superdelegate count.

"In terms of numbers, it's over," Professor Sabato says.

Campaigning in Oregon on May 10, Obama barely mentioned his Democratic rival. Instead, he began attempting to draw contrasts between himself and Senator McCain, saying that the Republican had received a "free pass" for weeks as the Democrats slugged it out in primaries across the country.

Obama said he would be open to meeting McCain in unscripted town-hall events. But in a preview of how hard-hitting such events might become, he said he might raise such issues as McCain's connection to the 1987 Keating Five savings-and-loan scandal. He also called McCain's proposal for a summer moratorium on the federal gasoline tax a "pander" that belies the Arizona senator's straight-talk image. "He didn't even have a way of paying for it," said Obama of the gas-tax proposal.

On May 10, the Obama campaign also announced the beginning of what it said would be a 50-state voter-registration drive in advance of the November elections.

That is the sort of unifying gesture that Obama needs to make if he indeed becomes the nominee, says Allan Lichtman, a political history professor at American University in Washington. With the Republican nominee burdened by association with an unpopular war, economic woes, and an incumbent with high disapproval ratings, "only a failure to unify can derail the Democratic ticket this year," Professor Lichtman says.

Obama also needs to work on his class problem, adds Gerald Pomper, Board of Governors professor of political science at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. That means he must figure out a way to better attract the white working-class voters who have made up the core of Clinton's support.

While some in the party might dream of an Obama-Clinton ticket, in cold political terms Clinton as a vice-presidential candidate makes little sense, Professor Pomper says. The state she represents in the Senate, New York, already is likely to vote Democratic. Nationally, women also are likely to tend to the Democratic Party.

Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia might be a better VP pick for Obama, Pomper says. As a Vietnam veteran, Annapolis graduate, and former secretary of the Navy, Senator Webb would provide national-security credentials that Obama lacks.

Finally, say experts, Obama must also try to regain the image he projected prior to the imbroglio over his past association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. "He must repolish his image as a unifying, creative leader," Lichtman says.

Of course, the Republican Party is likely to use such things as the controversies over Mr. Wright to try to define Obama as a politician who is out of the US mainstream.

• Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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