Who would the GOP rather face?

John McCain's strategists look on with amazement, and a little glee, as Hillary Clinton tries to make a comeback against Barack Obama.

By Mike Madden
Published March 10, 2008 12:36PM (EDT)

Every time Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama met for a debate this year, the Republican National Committee got busy. RNC operatives blasted e-mail after e-mail to reporters, highlighting little details here and there about what the leading Democrats said and how (in Republican dreams) it would come back to bite them in the fall. The last few showdowns, though, saw the messages about Clinton slowly drop off, while the Obama e-mails came faster and faster. During their last debate in Cleveland, the RNC sent out eight memos on Obama, and only two on Clinton -- and one of those mentioned Obama, too.

So it's with surprise and befuddlement -- and some relish -- that Republicans, especially John McCain's strategists, are now looking at the sudden revival of a race in the other party that they thought was more or less over. Plans that were already being drawn up to try to beat Obama are on hold. If you think you're confused watching Obama and Clinton battle, you're not alone. "I don't know who the hell the nominee's going to be," said Mark Salter, a senior advisor to McCain's campaign. But the McCain team does find itself facing two prospects that may benefit their candidate -- a costly, protracted fight for the nomination on the other side of the aisle, and the possibility that the last Democrat standing may be a woman whose very name spurs GOP voters and donors into action.

For weeks, McCain has been running against Obama. He started dropping little rhetorical bombs on him when they both swept the "Potomac primaries" in mid-February, mocking Obama's favorite lines in his own victory speech. Then he picked a fight over Iraq, seizing on Obama's statement in a debate that he would order troops back into the country after the U.S. withdraws if al-Qaida started setting up bases. Obama, meanwhile, pushed back at McCain over campaign finance. The calendar may have read February, but it felt like October.

But in a year when the pundits have gotten it wrong almost every week, why should the Republicans be any different? By Tuesday night, when McCain clinched his nomination, the speech Salter wrote for him suddenly abandoned most of the specific Obama references in favor of generic "my opponent" language that basically ran through the usual Republican sound bites against any Democrat -- "my opponent" will pull out of NAFTA, "my opponent" likes taxes, "my opponent" wants big government healthcare mandates. The fall campaign, already in progress, was put back on hold.

All winter, Republicans have glanced across the aisle and wondered what, exactly, was going on in the Democratic race. Sometimes the lessons they've drawn have been a bit off. Mitt Romney was so impressed by Obama's win in Iowa that he started calling himself a change candidate, as if he'd forgotten that the change Obama was pushing started with putting a Democrat in the White House. The vast sums of money both Democrats are raising inspires some longing among McCain staffers, who sound amazed at reports that Obama has 700 paid staffers working for him.

Of course, polling shows either Democrat would beat McCain in November, so for the GOP, the outcome of the Obama-Clinton race may not look great no matter how it shakes out. McCain's strategists say they've been too busy clinching their own nomination to worry about what the Democrats have been up to. But the longer Clinton and Obama slug away at each other, the happier McCain's aides are. "It looks like a protracted conflict, and I would guess they're going for at least another two months and maybe all the way to the convention, and spending their money on each other instead of us," said Charlie Black, another senior advisor.

Still, Republicans already have a pretty clear road map for how to run against Hillary. (It's not as if it would be the first time she's been their nemesis.) Surveys and focus groups the RNC commissioned earlier in the year indicate voters think Clinton "will say or do anything to get elected" and that she'll raise their taxes. "Americans know Senator Clinton, and they know that they can't trust her," RNC spokesman Alex Conant said. Attacks might not even need to dredge up all the old battles of her husband's administration -- though, as the "socialized medicine" refrain that crept back into Republican talking points this year shows, the GOP does like to tie old lines into new ones. And a McCain-Clinton contest would pretty much end all the worries at McCain's Alexandria, Va., headquarters about how to unite Republicans behind him; just sending out an e-mail with "Hillary Clinton" in the subject line could probably raise him a few million bucks.

Which is why some Republicans sounded almost wistful as Obama won state after state in February. Deprived of one of their favorite punching bags of all time, they had to move on to another target, one who wasn't already familiar to many voters. The easy shots at Clinton would have to be shelved. "The political reality was, why would Republicans bother attacking her?" one GOP strategist said.

McCain's aides say now they don't know which one they'd rather face. "McCain and I have never been sure of that," Black said. "We've talked about it and looked at it, and we're not sure who's easier or that either of them is easier." So like most of the rest of the country (except, of course, Mississippians, Pennsylvanians and the residents of the other seven states and two U.S. possessions yet to vote), they're just watching. "There's nothing we can really do about it," Salter said. "To the extent we're paying attention to the dynamic, it's just giving us information that we need for our schedule -- how much time do we have to go out there and reintroduce McCain to the country and start doing policy speeches while those two are banging away at each other?"

The RNC, meanwhile, will handle the nastier end of things -- making sure that voters have at least some negative associations in their minds with whoever emerges with the Democratic nomination, whenever the race ends. But there, too, strategists seem content for now to let Clinton do their dirty work on Obama, or vice versa; why get in the way when your opponents' aides are calling each other monsters or saying they aren't ready to handle an international crisis?

From the GOP perspective, the race has taken an even weirder turn lately, with Obama lumping McCain and Clinton together in his speech Tuesday night after losing Texas and Ohio, calling them both opponents of his hope for change. Not to be outdone, Clinton implied Thursday that McCain was more qualified to be commander in chief than Obama.

In fact, the Democratic campaign may be providing McCain with a plan for the fall no matter who wins. To the GOP, the lesson of Clinton's comeback is simple: attack, attack, attack. "She went on the attack on about three fronts and got him on the defensive," Black said. "What you're gonna find out now, we're gonna find out how tough Obama is. If he has a glass jaw, she just broke it." Winning in November on a platform built on cheering for an unpopular war will still be hard for John McCain. But it'll be a lot easier if his opponents help him out along the way.

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 Hillary Rodham Clinton John Mccain R-ariz.