For all the talk about John McCain’s hard-hitting politics, Barack Obama is hardly innocent.
Both candidates and their allies are fully engaged in creating unflattering caricatures of each other that they hope will stick in voters’ minds for the next three months.
Obama and his Democratic allies argue that the Republican is negative and offers nothing new, while McCain and his Republicans claim the Democrat is presumptuous and ill-prepared.
"They’re cynical," Obama recently charged of McCain and his followers, adding: "They want to distract people from talking about the real issues." One day earlier, the Democrat issued a fundraising appeal accusing McCain of taking "the low road" and stooping to "the same old smears" by launching "a desperate new set of attacks" each day.
McCain disputed that. "This is a very respectful campaign. I don’t think our campaign is negative in the slightest," he said. His comments came the same week he agreed with a top aide’s charge that Obama had "played the race card" and rolled out a TV commercial that mocking Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world" and asking: "Is he ready to lead?"
Brutal, certainly; effective, probably — and that’s why competitive contests typically end up in the gutter.
Nevermind that at the outset of the general election Obama and McCain each expressed a desire for a courteous campaign focused on issues and free of the negative politics that have marked — and marred — presidential races.
These days, each skewers his opponent with regularity — and even zeal.
The Obama campaign argues that he’s drawing distinctions based on policy, while McCain has gotten personal by comparing the Illinois senator to lightweight celebrities and stoking the race issue. McCain’s campaign defends its tactics, contends issues of experience, judgment and readiness are fair game, and maintains that Obama brought up race first.
Certainly, there’s a difference in tone and style between the two.
McCain is blunt and can be snarky, particularly when he doesn’t think much of his target.
The Arizona senator recently questioned Obama on Iraq, saying he "would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign," and belittled him for the "audacity of hopelessness" in his policies. At one point, McCain said: "Sen. Obama told the American people what he thought you wanted to hear. I told you the truth."
McCain also rolled out a TV ad that took issue with Obama’s canceled visit with injured troops — the ad was widely debunked — as well as another that used starlets Britney Spears and Paris Hilton to poke fun at Obama’s worldwide following and suggest he’s little more than empty suit. Separately, a Web video chided him as "The One."
Conversely, Obama is more stealthy as he attacks rhetorically.
He typically says he respects McCain. Then, he assails the Republican with a lighthearted, commonsense — and sometimes sarcastic — pitch and a smile.
On Monday, Obama quoted McCain lamenting the failure by Washington politicians to fix the country’s dependence on foreign oil and said: "What Sen. McCain neglected to mention was that during those 30 years, he was in Washington for 26 of them! And in all that time, he did little to reduce our dependence on foreign oil."
Obama then ran down a laundry list of McCain votes and added: "He’s been a part of that failure." But, Obama said, after "after years of inaction, and in the face of public frustration over rising gas prices," McCain is offering what amounts to an unworkable solution both in the short term and long term.
The Democrat didn’t say it explicitly but that was a suggestion of political expediency on McCain’s part.
He also took McCain to task for a comment about the "psychological" relief a gas tax holiday would bring to consumers and added: "We simply cannot pretend, as Sen. McCain does, that we can drill our way out of this problem."
That, too, stoked the notion that McCain isn’t being straight with the public.
Obama also compared his rival to President Bush and Vice Dick President Cheney — and their closeness with big oil — and said: "Make no mistake: the oil companies have placed their bet on Sen. McCain, and if he wins, they will continue to cash in while our families and our economy suffer and our future is put in jeopardy."
And, he went just as far in a new TV ad that said: "After one president in the pocket of big oil, we can’t afford another."
The implication: McCain would do the bidding of oil companies that pad his campaign coffers. But both candidates accept contributions from oil and gas industry executive, with McCain taking in about three times as much money as Obama, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sometimes, Obama strays from differences on issues.
Last week, he said in a mocking tone that McCain and Bush would try to scare the public by saying he "doesn’t look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills." Those would be white men.
That set off a fury, with McCain accusing Obama of playing politics with race, and Obama arguing McCain had hit below the belt.
Sometimes, too, Obama has been the instigator.
Twice this summer before Hispanic groups, he accused McCain of walking away from comprehensive immigration reform. Speaking to the same organizations, McCain refrained from criticizing Obama. He answered the charge directly only after Obama repeated it before a third group.
Liz Sidoti covers the presidential campaign for The Associated Press and has covered national politics since 2003.
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