Jewish Journal

The traveling candidates

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 3, 2008 | 3:39 pm

As John McCain finishes his tour of Colombia and Mexico, Barack Obama is making plans for a trip to Israel, Iraq, France, England, and Jordan.  Smart for Obama, not so smart for McCain. 

Obama needs to be seen as credible on the world stage, and McCain needs to be seen as somebody who knows the price of gas in Toledo.

Republicans are quite worried about Obama’s upcoming trip, and have been telling reporters that they are not very happy about McCain’s.  McCain had already been to the countries Obama will visit, and this was a more modest one.  Nothing particularly bad happened on McCain’s foreign tour, and there was even some good news when the government of Columbia managed to rescue some hostages with a quite brilliant intelligence coup.  McCain was well treated by government leaders, which is not particularly surprising, but not particularly newsworthy either.  When traveling abroad, McCain can hardly put distance between himself and the unpopular President Bush.  Perhaps it was just that McCain is frustrated by the campaign and uninterested in domestic issues, and hoping that foreign policy expertise will be the entire ball of wax for the election.  McCain is acting like a president near the end of his term, going abroad because it’s more comfortable than getting darts thrown at you at home.

When asked about the trip, his campaign aide said it had been McCain’s idea and “the campaign was fine with it.”  In my experience, that’s a new one.

Meanwhile, Obama is laying plans for his grand tour.  Unlike McCain, he is likely to get a big popular reception overseas.  His every utterance, though, will be watched closely to see if he makes a mistake.  Jewish voters will be very interested to see how it works out in Israel.

In any case, Obama can use a change in the story line right now.  His switch on the FISA vote from opposition to support was a real disappointment to many of his most devoted supporters.  His initial reaction to the Wes Clark dustup with John McCain, rejecting Clark’s comments, seemed wimpy to many Democrats.  There is a worry in the party that he may be “playing not to lose” with excessive caution rather than “playing to win” and being more aggressive.

On the domestic side, though, Obama’s travels to red states are perking up Democrats, especially in those states.  He visited North Dakota and Montana, buoyed by a poll in the latter red state showing him leading McCain.  Meanwhile, McCain is visiting states to raise money (New York, California, etc) but not places where he is likely to win.  So even on the domestic travel front, Obama is besting McCain.

Where McCain is hurting Obama is in the daily back-and-forth of the campaign.  So far, this is turning out to be one of Obama’s weaknesses, and McCain’s strength.  The years that McCain invested in winning the favor of political reporters (the barbeques, the intimate chats on the bus, the cultivation of their friendship) has paid off handsomely. 

In addition to being a big referendum, a campaign is also the sum total of a bunch of days that each candidate tries to win.  The McCain people are being out-spent and out-organized.  But they are out-messaging Obama.  Obama’s team is unaccountably on the defensive, looking to fight back against charges instead of pressing their advantage.  Republicans are jumping on every Obama mistake, and even creating ones that don’t exist (such as the mythical special deal Obama did not actually receive on his home loan). 

Meanwhile, the Obama people are spending precious little time making McCain pay for his mistakes or inconsistencies.  If they’re not careful, they will find themselves in the position of all candidates who try to run out the clock and to rely on organization and money instead of message.

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Raphael J. Sonenshein (born 1949 in Nutley, New Jersey) was a political science professor at California State University, Fullerton. He is also served as chairman of the...

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