McCain targets Obama

In his victory remarks, the still-presumptive GOP nominee launches the general election a little early.

Published February 13, 2008 3:40AM (EST)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- John McCain doesn't seem to be betting very heavily on a Hillary Clinton comeback.

After McCain swept the D.C., Maryland and Virginia primaries tonight -- another step in his now nearly unstoppable march to the Republican nomination -- he focused all his rhetorical fire on Barack Obama, ignoring Clinton completely in his remarks.

"Hope, my friends, is a powerful thing," McCain said. "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."

But that was all a setup for what came next. "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," he said. "It is a platitude." The crowd -- apparently also ready to look ahead to the general election -- roared.

As Obama has won contest after contest on the Democratic side this month, McCain's strategists appear to be slowly realizing they might have to run against him -- something that seemed unthinkable to them (and most pundits) last fall. But the speech tonight was by far the most aggressive McCain has been toward either Clinton or Obama -- in general or specifically.

He threw out the standard Republican lines about Democratic dreams -- bigger government, higher taxes and a lack of will in the fight against terrorists. But McCain also started laying the groundwork for a specific anti-Obama message, even though he started his speech by acknowledging the race on the other side of the aisle was still unsettled.

"They will promise to break with the failed politics of the past, but will campaign in ways that seek to minimize their exposure to questions from the press and challenges from voters who ask more from their candidates than an empty promise of 'trust me, I know better,'" he said. The line echoed criticism McCain aides have been making privately for weeks about how much more accessible their guy is to the press than either Democrat.

It was the last line of the speech, though, which left no doubt about its primary target. McCain couldn’t quite pull it off without laughing; he always has trouble reading prepared text well, no less so tonight. But he got through it, and set the Republican crowd here roaring again.

"My friends, I promise you," he said, stealing Obama's most famous campaign slogan, "I am fired up and ready to go."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama John Mccain R-ariz.