WASHINGTON — If Barack Obama wins the Democratic presidential nomination, the past few weeks have given him a taste of what he might face in a general election campaign: An assault on his thin record of achievement and his limited experience coupled with sometimes anonymous insinuations about his cultural background. Republican officials can hit him high while talk-show hosts and independent groups hit him low.
It could go something like this: He was the most liberal senator of 2007, according to the National Journal, a respected Washington research publication. He's weak and untested on national security. He's dangerously naive. (And pssst: his middle name's Hussein and his last name rhymes with Osama.)
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain already is challenging Obama on issues. While he acknowledges Obama's inspirational persona, McCain contrasts his own record — a 71-year-old war veteran and experienced conservative lawmaker — with that of a 46-year-old, first-term liberal senator who has no military experience and says he'd raise taxes.
Campaigning in Texas on Wednesday, McCain jabbed at Obama's assertion in a debate the night before that he'd withdraw from Iraq but would reserve the right to use force later if al Qaida formed a base there.
Said McCain: "Al Qaida is in Iraq. It's called 'al Qaida in Iraq.' "
As for the National Journal rating, McCain campaign manager Rick Davis predicted that it would be all over campaign mailers: "That'll be right there on your refrigerator under one of those magnets."
In recent days Obama also contended with a photo circulated anonymously that featured him on a 2006 visit to Kenya wearing a Somali outfit and looking vaguely Muslim. At a McCain rally, an Ohio talk-show host repeatedly invoked Obama's middle name, "Hussein," a tactic that McCain denounced.
Obama's father's side of the family is African and Muslim, and Obama spent some childhood years in Indonesia. But he was raised by his divorced American mother, who wasn't Muslim, and her parents. As an adult, Obama joined the United Church of Christ, albeit in a black Chicago congregation whose preacher has a somewhat radical reputation.
McCain senior adviser Charlie Black said that Obama's lead over McCain in head-to-head polls merely reflected that it was still primary season.
"This country is a right-of-center country," Black said. General-election voters "don't want more government spending, they don't want higher taxes, they don't want to see their health-care system have more government involvement."
Regarding Obama's Muslim relatives, Black said, "I can't imagine that being anything we're going to talk about."
On another front that could turn off some voters — Obama's admitted marijuana and cocaine use as a youth — Black said: "I think McCain's unlikely to touch on that. John McCain is not a negative campaigner. He especially does not like negative personal campaigning."
But McCain wouldn't have to use such tactics himself.
The Republican Party would launch its own attacks. Already, Republican researchers are drawing up timelines contrasting what student Obama or young-adult Obama was doing while adult McCain was in Vietnam or legislating in Congress.
And some conservative talk-show hosts and bloggers like to portray Obama as a Muslim.
Michael Reagan, the former president's son and a conservative talk-show host himself, opposes Obama's liberal policies but despises the fact that some of his callers refer to Obama by his middle name.
"I truly believe when someone uses Barack Hussein Obama, that's their way of saying 'nigger.' That's their way of saying the N word, and it's copping out. ...
"Do you remember Ronald Reagan's middle name? Do you remember Jimmy Carter's middle name? Conservatives are using it as the N word. The man was named by his father, who happened to be Kenyan. I hope it does not work. . . . The idea he is some Manchurian Muslim candidate is outrageous to me."
Then there are independent groups, which may run their own ads attacking Obama.
Jerome Corsi, a co-author of "Unfit for Command," the text behind the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" assault on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's war credentials in 2004, said that Obama's background would be picked over and some of it aired, perhaps by Corsi himself.
"The time he spent in Indonesia, what was he doing there?" said Corsi, who also writes for WorldNetDaily, a conservative online news site. (Obama was 6 to 10 years old while he was in Indonesia.) "The drug years: What period were they and when did they really start and stop?"
Corsi also intends to research Obama's late mother, Obama's connections to Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga and Odinga's ties to Muslim groups, and some of Obama's early mentors who took radical leftist or separatist stands.
Those mentors include community organizer Saul Alinsky and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who's retiring as the longtime minister of Obama's church and has praised the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan. Obama has condemned Farrakhan and stressed his support of Israel to Jewish leaders, but he remains a member of Wright's church.
Obama's ties to indicted Chicago developer Tony Rezko also may come up, although there's no evidence that Obama did any favors for Rezko in exchange for his campaign contributions or that Rezko was involved in a real estate purchase with the Obamas.
"Any candidate's background is relevant. The same vetting would have been done on Mitt Romney's Mormon background. He just didn't survive long enough," Corsi said.
McClatchy Newspapers 2008