While the Democratic contenders are locked in battle, John McCain is roaming the countryside.
First was the Bio Tour—a sort of “this is your life” venture revisiting his personal highlights. Then came the “It’s Time for Action” tour, which wended through places his campaign describes as “communities that have been forgotten and left behind.”
This has spawned a certain amount of head-scratching in Republican circles. Why the soft sell during a period when the Democrats are making it so hard to get attention? And why go to places that never vote Republican anyway?
It’s not as crazy as it seems. Yes, McCain makes much of the idea of projecting an honorable image, and avoiding personal attacks. And certainly, as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do bloody, muddy battle, McCain has been able to present himself as someone who has remained above the fray. (Witness his public condemnations of the North Carolina Republican Party for running scary attack ads against local Democrats based on Obama’s controversial pastor.)
But these tours themselves, ostensibly conducted for the purpose of re-introducing McCain and reaching beyond usual Republican enclaves, are something else: an implicit criticism of Obama, whom McCain is convinced will be his opponent.
What could be negative—or even comparative—about visiting the Naval Academy and his high school? Plenty.
While Obama was fending off stories about his flag pin and his wife’s comment that she had never been proud of America, McCain was reveling in nostalgia over his family’s military service and the sacrifices he made in service of “a cause greater than [himself].”
While Obama deals with question after question about his spotlight-dwelling mentor Reverend Wright, McCain introduced us to his salt-of-the-earth English teacher who, McCain says, influenced his character and values. The implicit message is that the other guy has Wright’s invective and McCain has Mr. Ravenel’s honor code.
As Obama suffered defeat in Pennsylvania, losing many rural areas by thirty points, where was McCain? In Inez, Kentucky, extolling the virtues of coal miners, and discussing Obama’s “bitter” comments in front of a cheering crowd heavy with religious, gun owners.
The tours may be the best solution for the dilemma that plagues the McCain campaign: they desperately want to refight the culture wars but have a candidate who doesn’t want to get his hands dirty. The tours provide him with venue after venue to make the arguments about character and values which will form a key portion of his campaign message.
Not that this soft offensive is likely to last much past the time a Democratic nominee is finally selected.
McCain will suddenly find himself under attack, and subtlety will go out the window. When he really means to set up a contrast between his supporters and associates and Obama’s—and his patriotism and his opponent’s—he will have no choice but to directly address those issues himself.
It’s also fair to ask whether McCain will really be able to run a general election campaign premised on refighting a culture war in a year when voters are talking about other things. With the Iraq war unconcluded and the economy lurching toward recession, Americans will have limited patience for the sight of McCain revisiting his childhood and wandering through “forgotten” places. They will want him to focus on foreclosures, health care and jobs in their neighborhoods.
It will be time for action.