Scrutiny increases, in preview of general election

A major development of the past 24 hours has been that Obama and McCain are setting their sights on each now, as McCain seeks to weaken his most likely general election opponent and Obama is responding, eager to emerge as his party's spokesperson. (Some commentators are saying that McCain is trying to weaken Obama to help Clinton win the nomination, but that does not seem to be a very compelling explanation given that the entire GOP field was obsessed with Hillary as of a month ago.)

And with that, Rasmussen released two general election polls this morning from two swing states where the election looks tight:

  • In Ohio, Rasmussen shows McCain edging out both Democrats within the margin of error, 42% to 41% against Obama, 46% to 43% against Clinton.
  • In Michigan, Obama runs stronger than Clinton, leading McCain 47% to 39% while Clinton ties the Arizona Senator at 44%.
My last discussion of general election polls (here) still holds with these surveys, so I will delve straight into the increased scrutiny that Obama and McCain are now receiving.

Obama's fighting power tested: This comes out of Michelle Obama's statement at a recent rally that “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country." I was not planning on addressing this issue at all, but the controversy is now taking such proportions -- and serving as a preview of the general election -- that it is becoming hard to ignore it entirely.

Conservative blogs and outlets such as Fox News quickly seized on this issue, happy to further their preferred storyline that Democrats are part of the "America last" crowd. To make sure that the quote hit the mainstream media, the GOP turned to Cindy McCain, who very rarely makes such partisan comments but who declared yesterday, "I am proud of my country. I don’t know about you. If you heard those words earlier, I am very proud of my country." John McCain made his own pointed reference at Michelle's comments in his Wisconsin victory speech. And since then, Bill O'Reilly has gotten in trouble for his own attack:

I don't want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there's evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels. If that's how she really feels — that America is a bad country or a flawed nation, whatever — then that's legit.

Michelle Obama's has since explained that she meant that she was never proud of the country's politics, and this is the first time she thinks the US is ready to move beyond politics as usual. And the firestorm that her initial comment is causing looks to be as fabricated as the ones that the Right forced upon Teresa Heinz Kerry. Obama is still mostly undefined in the country, and the Republicans want to move fast to portray the Illinois Senator as an out of the mainstream candidate, just as they did with John Kerry in 2004.

In essence, this controversy is serving as a test of the Obama campaign's ability to fight back against Republicans. This, of course, is one of the main arguments the Clinton campaign has against him. Hillary always says that she has fought the GOP machine for years, and that Obama is not prepared for what the Republicans will do to him in the coming months. What she is basically saying is that she will not let herself be swift-boated the way Kerry was, and that she will hit back.

Now, Obama is facing that type of tactic, but his campaign took a long time to offer any kind of defense or response. They let the controversy grow without addressing it, which is exactly what allowed the Swift Boat ads to become so influential in 2004. And this also serves as a warning to Michelle Obama, who Republicans will now seek to transform into a controversial figure. Given how successful they were with that in 2004, the McCain campaign will no doubt go at it again, and Democrats are now warned.

McCain hit by the New York Times: The NYT has just published a story today that they had been mostly written since December. There was news then that the Times had a major story under wraps and that they were not releasing it, prompting McCain to try fighting back preemptively. The article is now up and is a must-read given how much it will likely be discussed in the coming days. It focuses on McCain's ethics, and explains why the Senator is not always as clean as we would like to think he is -- starting with the Keating Five scandal towards which a large portion of the piece is devoted. The article implies that much of McCain's subsequent focus on ethics has been to repair his reputation hurt by Keating, and that this quest is not without its ambiguities: "Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest."

But the most important parts of the article (and those that are new) are devoted to McCain's relationship with a lobbyist, Vicky Iseman. On the one hand the implication is that there are doubts the two had a romantic relationship; on the other that McCain might have done some ethically improper favors:

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

And later still:

Separately, a top McCain aide met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington to ask her to stay away from the senator. John Weaver, a former top strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, said in an e-mail message that he arranged the meeting after “a discussion among the campaign leadership” about her.

“Our political messaging during that time period centered around taking on the special interests and placing the nation’s interests before either personal or special interest,” Mr. Weaver continued. “Ms. Iseman’s involvement in the campaign, it was felt by us, could undermine that effort.”

There will be a lot of discussion in coming days as to how damaging these allegations are, but what has got to be worrisome for McCain is that they struck at the core of his appeal: the fact that he is a different kind of politician, clean on ethics. And one problem McCain might face is that there is a preexisting narrative that such articles can tap into that supports a narrative of a more unethical McCain -- and that is exactly the narrative the NYT is here referring to by grounding its story in the Keating Five.

Another thing to consider is that the NYT article appears to have been edited quite extensively, and a lot of things seem to have been cut out. There are allusions to more details existing, particularly about possible favor, so this story could drag on if these details emerge later.

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