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Opening salvos indicate blistering run-up to election

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By Salena Zito and David M. Brown
Friday, March 7, 2008

Republican John McCain has fired an opening volley at the Democrat he will face in the general election, whether it's Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

His strategy might differ depending on which candidate he faces, and no one is yet predicting what McCain should do if the two team up on a ticket.

But, says Michael Barone, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics, if McCain could "aggregate the negatives of both candidates, a combined ticket could be a McCain advantage."

McCain, who sewed up the GOP nomination on Tuesday, released a statement Thursday contending neither Democrat "is ready to answer a 3 a.m. phone calling during an international crisis." The phone call image referenced a Clinton ad that was designed to cast doubt on Obama's experience and judgment.

McCain, tipping his hand on his fall strategy, turned the ad on both Democrats. "Only Sen. McCain is ready to serve as commander in chief from day one," the statement claimed.

"We have already seen the first campaign ad that John McCain is going to run this year. It just so happens that Hillary Clinton is the one that ran it," said Dan Schnur, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley.

Schnur, who was McCain's communication director during his failed 2000 presidential bid, said McCain can easily run that red-phone ad against either Democratic candidate and "instantly draw a contrast of experience and preparation."

With the national spotlight focused on the Democratic battle between Clinton and Obama, McCain will compete for attention.

"While both of the Democrats battle it out, McCain should be out there telling his story," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac poll. "Once their race is over, the public will have no doubt who he is and where he stands, so that he is ready to take on either one."

In an apparent move to do just that, McCain plans to use a cross-country "biography tour" and overseas travel to reinforce his foreign policy credentials.

"McCain needs to be frequently visible in the national news," said former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a McCain adviser. "That's not impossible, but it will be difficult when your campaign's over and the country's waiting for the Democrats to select their candidate."

A version of the red-phone ad might work for McCain if he faces Obama in the fall, Brown said. McCain, 71, possibly could use age as an advantage against Obama, 47.

"Turn it from an age question to an experience answer," Brown said.

A McCain race against Clinton, 60, would take a different strategy, he said.

"There is a perception that Sen. Clinton is very experienced in office; that has come from her race against Obama," Brown noted. McCain's challenge would be "to blunt that myth."

The other crucial task is finding a running mate. McCain and his top strategists are deciding how to vet potential vice presidential candidates, said Charlie Black, a Washington lobbyist and McCain confidant.

So far, McCain has instructed aides to "do some research on how other people have done it over the last 20 years or so," Black said. "We don't see any urgency in this."

As they gird for the general election, McCain and his advisers should "take very good notes as the grenades go back and forth between Obama and Clinton -- and see what works and what doesn't," said Rich Galen, a longtime Republican strategist.

A race pitting Clinton against McCain would tend to give Clinton an advantage in states that went Democrat in the 2000 and 2004 races, and McCain an advantage in states that went Republican in those races, said Barone.

"But an Obama-McCain race may redraw the map of the past few elections," Barone said.

Some states that voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, such as Colorado and Iowa, might go to Obama, while "conversely, states like Pennsylvania and Washington," that went with the Democratic nominee in those races, are "very McCain friendly," he said.

Bloomberg News contributed to this report.

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