And meanwhile, John McCain...

For most of the fall, the GOP race looked like the more interesting one from the purely entertainment perspective; in case you have forgotten how confusing Republican calculations looked, just check back my GOP nomination rankings I came out with at the end of December (that was the first post, by the way, in which I gave McCain a slight edge in his party's race). And until January 29th and the Florida primary, Republicans kept up a highly competitive primary that was covered very closely.

Florida, of course, pretty much guaranteed McCain's nomination and the Republican nominee has had to fight for attention since then. With the Democratic campaign the only game in town, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are monopolizing headlines -- including on Campaign Diaries. After devoting equal time to the two parties all the way to Super Tuesday, I have mostly ignored McCain's campaign ever since then. This website, after all, is devoted to electoral analysis and not to news keeping.

But with McCain now rested from the primary campaign and thinking about the general, the way he is spending those months without a clear opponent is obviously crucial in preparing the general election. And in what is the corollary to the question of whether the drawn-out Democratic primary will end up hurting the party's nominee, the decisive question concerning McCain is whether his ceding the spotlight to his opponents helps him or hurts him.

This week, the Arizona Senator conducted a European trip that took him to Jerusalem, London and Paris. He was accompanied in this trip by two of his strongest allies, Senators Lindsay Graham and Joe Lieberman. This is not an unusual move by a presidential candidate. Before he lost Ohio and Texas, Barack Obama had plans to conduct his own European trip, but he can hardly do so (and be as easily received by foreign leaders) before clinching the nomination

McCain does not need to burnish his foreign policy credentials, but he does want to start appearing presidential and get the American people used to thinking of him as the country's representative. He is also hoping to use his foreign tour to start meeting the primary challenge he will face in the general election: Running as a Republican without looking like Bush's heir. In both London and Paris, McCain emphasized the themes of torture and global warming and sought to differentiate himself from the policies of the Bush Administration; for example, he proposed to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol (for those who read French, here is the interview McCain gave to Le Monde, the influential French daily).

It would thus seem that the fact that McCain has trouble getting as much coverage as his competitors right now should hurt him, since his trip was not as covered as it could have been if Obama, Clinton, 1990s First Lady schedules or "typical" white people were not dominating the news cycle. And to some degree that is true, and is a problem McCain will face for a few more weeks.

At the same time, McCain has for now little to complain about. He emerged out of the primaries with little money left; he raised stunningly little in February ($12 million), despite having wrapped up the nomination; despited by much of his own party's elite (and some of the base), he was vulnerable to a concerted Democratic attack. Two months after Florida, and despite a few DNC produced web ads and a few privately produced videos, the onslaught McCain was allowed to fear and to which he would have had difficulty responding to never materialized.

And even if he is not as much in the spotlight as the Democrats, the Arizona Senator can prepare his general election campaign -- try out themes, test narratives -- in more tranquility, while also spending more time courting the base and building an organization. In short, the Republican candidate can build the McCain style and take control of the party far from the spotlight, which is in many ways a great benefit.

If the situation continues, things could start looking very different for McCain. For one, Democrats will start attacking the Republican soon: If Clinton and Obama are too busy to do so, the DNC knows it has to do so. And, more relevantly, 527s are already organizing themselves to take on the Republican. And the AFL-CIO is already preparing its massive offensive against the GOP nominee. McCain will have trouble responding if it does not know who it should hit -- though Obama is certainly emerging as the likely nominee, enough so that if Republicans find the money to go after him now they will certainly do so. (Note that it is unlikely that they can use Obama's still fighting Clinton to not draw a response from him. Obama has more than enough money to fight a two-front war).

Exactly what advantage McCain draws from this will depend on how vicious the Democratic fight gets. If Obama and Clinton keep on running against each other all the way to June but manage to keep the discussion civil the way they have up to now (the Wright controversy was not brought up by Clinton, after all, and would have come out whether or not she had withdrawn), the fact that they keep monopolizing the spotlight will start playing in their favor at a time McCain will want to draw more attention.

If the nomination fight gets more divisive in a way that (I insist on this point) it has not been up to now, i.e. if Clinton is strong enough after June 3rd to not withdraw before the convention and fight Obama on the convention floor, all bets are off. On the one hand, it would could be disastrous for McCain if he spent June to the end of August having to fight for attention; on the other, just leaving the other side blooding itself out could be invaluable. The exact impact of McCain's time-off from the spotlight will not be known until we can assess it in retrospect.

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