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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Free campaign advice

The political calendar, packed with weekly events since the start of the new year, is now about to take a spring break. The next scheduled primary is in Pennsylvania, April 22. By then, my classes will be over for this term!

Can the main Democratic rivals continue for nearly six weeks without destroying each other? Events of the last week suggest that this might be a big problem. Surrogates from both campaigns have made unfortunate word choices to describe the opponent camp's candidate.

One significant reason the battle between Obama and Clinton has become so personally destructive is that the candidates agree on a heck of a lot of issues. Highlighting their images, personal narratives and approaches to politics is about the only way for the candidates to distinguish themselves from each other.

Sure, they disagree about some policy details.

And yes, to policy wonks, many of those details are important.

However, to the average voter the campaigns probably sound very much alike. They both want to create health insurance plans that would offer universal coverage, to move forward on global warming, to renegotiate NAFTA (to take into account labor and environmental interests), and to withdraw from Iraq.

It's a popular Democratic agenda and the loser's supporters should naturally navigate to the other candidate in the fall.

To avoid the potential self-destruction of identity politics, the Obama campaign should turn its focus toward presumptive Republican nominee John McCain in the next month or so. Because he has more delegates, constituting a virtually insurmountable lead after 40 state elections, Obama can afford to campaign differently.

By focusing on McCain, Obama can illustrate that one of Clinton's central attacks is wrong. She says he's not ready to be President, especially on matters of national security. Obama could spend the next month disproving that very point -- by debating McCain through speeches and ads.

Based on the exchange they had about al Qaeda of Iraq a couple of weeks ago, McCain seems more than willing to engage this debate.

By demonstrating his security acumen and debating an opponent with major differences on these issues, Obama can highlight more clearly that he is the change that his supporters want him to be.

Such a campaign strategy would indicate that Obama is "ready on day one" to take on the heavy hitters he is going to face from the Republicans in Congress and embedded in think tanks. On substance, Obama will make a lot of points that Democrats want to hear -- about the war's failings, about energy policy, etc.

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