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Can John McCain turn up the heat on his likely Democratic opponent?

By 3.21.08

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Jeremiah Wright has handed John McCain much needed ammunition to use against Barack Obama in a general election campaign. Will McCain be skillful enough to use it without sustaining self-inflicted wounds of his own?

McCain is learning that it isn't easy. The incendiary sermons delivered by Obama's pastor have lit up the airwaves and raised concerns among independents about the Democratic frontrunner for the first time in this campaign. Conservatives, who once sympathized with Obama as a victim of the Clintons' kitchen-sink political attacks and the potential Hillary slayer, have turned against Obama as if he were a cross between George McGovern and Al Sharpton.

But issues concerning race and patriotism have to be handled delicately or there will be blowback. So discovered a McCain aide who was suspended from the campaign for circulating an independently produced YouTube video juxtaposing footage of Obama with virtually every controversy that has challenged the Illinois senator's claim to be a presidential candidate who can unite all Americans.

Titled "Is Obama Wright?", the video plays up Obama's association with his pastor while replaying Wright's greatest anti-American and anti-white hits. But it is not all talk of chickens coming home to roost. Not everyone at a ballgame sings the national anthem with a hand over his heart, yet Obama is made to sound as if he refused to stand for the pledge of allegiance. In addition to the more dubious flaps, the unrelated images of Malcolm X and black power salutes against the background music of Public Enemy suggests the video's producers may have had a subtly anti-black message of their own.

In a political culture where Willie Horton has haunted Republicans for a generation, the McCain campaign moved quickly to distance itself from the video and the aide who was distributing it. "We have been very clear on the type of campaign we intend to run and this staffer acted in violation of our policy," McCain spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker told the Politico. If noted liberals like Bill Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro are unable to handle these issues with care, insensitivity will definitely blow up in a Republican's face.

How can McCain take advantage of the concerns that Obama is not who he appears to be -- a real uniter, not a demagogic divider -- while maintaining the moral high ground? How can he McGovernize Obama in the eyes of Middle America without turning himself into Archie Bunker in the eyes of the fourth estate?

Such a dilemma would confound the most adroit politician. But McCain's temperament makes this especially tricky. Bipartisan John is a campaign-finance do-gooder and architect of the Gang of 14, not a practitioner of slash-and-burn politics. He is the favorite Republican of the New York Times editorial board, not Rush Limbaugh, making him an improbable voice for the talk radio set's concerns.

Even more challenging, this year's presidential race may not be a base election like 2000 and 2004. A McCain-Obama contest might be a race for the middle, with the two popular senators fighting for the independents and swing voters rather than just rallying the party faithful. These voters don't take kindly to what they see as unfair attacks.

Up until now, McCain has preferred to let his biography draw quiet contrasts. "Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing," McCain said in his Potomac primaries victory speech on Feb. 12. "I can attest to that better than many, for I have seen men's hopes tested in hard and cruel ways that few will ever experience." Read: I served my country in Vietnam and sacrificed as a prisoner of war; there is no doubting the depth of my commitment to America.

McCain continued, "To encourage a country with only rhetoric rather than sound and proven ideas that trust in the strength and courage of free people is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude." Read: Barack Obama promises change, but I am tested and have delivered.

These are strong words, and very hard to argue with. But George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole could have said many of the same things when contrasting themselves with Bill Clinton. Dole particularly emphasized during the 1996 presidential race that he had been tested and was ready for one more mission, to little effect.

Voters did not begin to have second thoughts about Obama because he is platitudinous and inexperienced, however much that has always concerned his conservative detractors. They began to think less favorably of him when they came doubt his narrative: the notion that Obama is the fresh change agent who can help Americans feel good about themselves again and move beyond the poisonous politics of race. Obama's Wright reaction speech may have been eloquent, but that narrative was undermined the moment he had to deliver it in the first place.

Obama's great gift as a politician is one he shares with Ronald Reagan -- the ability to make people who vehemently disagree with him on policy believe they nevertheless fit into his vision of America. Wright fulminating from his pulpit for years without Obama's censure has caused people to wonder if his appeal is contrived.

Right now, the talk radio hosts and conservative activists McCain battled against -- and occasionally came close to labeling as bigots -- are pressing this message for him. In many cases, they are trying to redefine Obama as a hater rather than a healer and snake oil salesman rather than a soaring orator.

As the Bill Cunningham kerfuffle revealed, McCain isn't comfortable with the way the talk radio right takes after Obama. If he is to score points against his likely opponent, he must find his own way of doing it.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.