A few hours before Barack Obama gives a speech in St. Paul, Minn., that's being billed as the start of the general election, John McCain will try to frame the fall campaign his own way, just outside New Orleans.
McCain's been focusing on Obama for weeks now, as his aides concluded long ago that Hillary Clinton wouldn't win the Democratic nomination. But speechwriter Mark Salter says tonight's remarks will be more obviously aimed at the general election. "Mostly new," Salter told Salon by BlackBerry as he traveled with McCain to fundraisers in Memphis and New Orleans before the speech. "Reform. Big changes needed. Own man. Record of reform and bipartisanship and putting public interest before party, presidents and self."
That's about as succinct as you can get, but it does a pretty good job of summing up the message McCain wants to hit as voters start to think about a general election campaign. Democrats say McCain is running for George W. Bush's third term, so McCain wants to highlight his already well-publicized breaks with the Bush administration (while minimizing the areas where he's come around to agreeing with the White House -- often on some of the same issues, like tax cuts). That's "own man." This fall's election is shaping up to be about who can change the course the country is on, and McCain's team knows that; to compete with Obama, whose entire campaign so far has been about change, they have to offer up their own version of the theme. That's "reform" and "big changes needed."
And finally, McCain and his senior aides have long believed that the movement Obama built over the last year and a half was largely a cult of personality, and that Obama -- despite often moving rhetoric about bringing America together and getting past the partisan politics of the past -- hasn't really shown he can do that. Republicans think McCain's military service and decades in Washington will show he's committed to higher principles, and that voters won't see the same dedication in Obama. Hence the emphasis on "putting public interest before party, presidents and self."
What remains to be seen is whether McCain makes that contrast implicitly, by simply emphasizing his own record, or explicitly, by attacking Obama. Salter wouldn't say.