WASHINGTON — The first direct shots of the 2008 general election campaign rang out last week.
Sen. Barack Obama, almost certainly the Democratic presidential nominee, started it Thursday with his musing that Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, was "losing his bearings" as his criticism of Obama escalated.
Within hours, McCain aide Mark Salter issued a blistering response, calling Obama's choice of words "a not particularly clever way of raising John McCain's age as an issue."
"We have all become familiar with Senator Obama's new brand of politics," Salter wrote. "First, you demand civility from your opponent, then you attack him, distort his record and send out surrogates to question his integrity. It is called hypocrisy, and it is the oldest kind of politics there is."
"A bizarre rant," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.
Sen. Hillary Clinton may still be in the Democratic race, but Obama all but wrapped up the party's nomination on Tuesday. The McCain and Obama campaigns are now focusing — rhetorically, financially and organizationally — on the long march to November.
McCain, who wrapped up the GOP nomination in March, has been prepping a bit longer. He's raised money, united his party and tried to define himself before his opponents can. He's had some success: He worked out a deal with the Republican National Committee and state parties that will allow donors to cough up as much as $70,000 to help his election effort. And while his fundraising remains anemic compared with Obama's, it's getting better: The campaign raised a reported $7 million Thursday night at a New York fundraiser.
McCain also has had a good run of press coverage, including generally positive reviews of his trip last month to poor areas of the South and Midwest. Next week, McCain will brandish his environmental credentials with a swing through the Pacific Northwest. Such trips are designed to help McCain among independent voters in swing states.
Through it all, McCain's been critical of Obama and Clinton, but Obama has been the focus. Reporters covering McCain get the sense that while he genuinely likes and respects Clinton, he views Obama as something of a callow poseur.
In a speech on his judicial philosophy last week, McCain criticized both Democrats for voting against the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, but he mocked only Obama as he questioned why Obama cast a "no" vote on someone who everyone agreed was a highly qualified nominee.
"And just where did John Roberts fall short, by the senator's measure?" McCain asked. "Well, a justice of the court, as Senator Obama explained it — and I quote — should share 'one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.'"
The McCain camp will argue that, in what many see as a "change" election, its candidate matches up well with Obama.
"The American people in the general election will have as one of their choices a proven leader who rises above partisan politics, who works across party lines at his own political risk to accomplish things on big issues, who by doing this as president ... will unite the American people," Charlie Black, a top McCain strategist, told reporters recently. "Of course, the choice that I mention is not Barack Obama, but John McCain. ... The difference is John McCain has a proven record."
Meanwhile, Obama's campaign on Saturday will roll out a national voter registration drive with more than 100 kickoff events in cities across the country. Obama also is seeking applicants for a summer-long fellowship program in which college students and others would commit to 30 hours per week of unpaid campaign work to build momentum for Obama heading into the fall.
Campaign manager David Plouffe and strategist David Axelrod identified various states that President Bush won in 2000 and 2004, but where, because of demographics and the rise of lower-ticket Democratic officials, they think Obama could win in the fall.
These include Montana, Virginia and North Carolina. Because of Obama's trouble in the Pennsylvania primary, they also know that they must invest resources in improving his reception among white working-class voters in that traditional swing state.
The campaign also tapped Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., to introduce Obama at national events and to serve as surrogates for him in conference calls with reporters. Both represent potential swing states.
Obama told guests at a Washington fundraiser Thursday that "this race is not over. ...The work that follows will be even tougher than the work that precedes it."