Newyork times

At times this spring, it appeared that Senator Barack Obama’s fight with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton would never end. In important ways, it hasn’t.

Instead, Mr. Obama has watched Senator John McCain pick up central strands of Mrs. Clinton’s approach, and amplify them. In exaggerated form, Mr. McCain, the presumed Republican presidential nominee, has adopted her attitude toward Mr. Obama’s emergence (disdain), employed the same core argument against him (unproven and risky) and singled out his lingering electoral vulnerabilities (older voters, Rust Belt whites) in a contest where the Democrat’s race forms the backdrop.

Two months after it began, Round 2 has yielded a similar result as in the Democratic primaries. Mr. Obama retains a lead in public opinion polls, but it has not been very big.

Yet key elements of Mr. McCain’s offensive, and Mr. Obama’s response, may resonate differently than in the Obama-Clinton duel. The general election outcome may turn on which side better adapts to those differences.

McCain Swings Harder

Establishment candidates typically use risk arguments to fend off dashing insurgents promising change. It didn’t work for President Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan in 1980; it did for Walter F. Mondale against Gary Hart in Democratic primaries four years later.

When Mr. McCain frames a choice between “the right change and the wrong change,” older Republicans hear echoes from 1972. The choice, President Richard Nixon asserted then of his race against George McGovern, “is between change that works and change that won’t work.”

The fervor inspired by Mr. Obama’s history-making candidacy poses challenges. Just as it partially obscured Mrs. Clinton’s own assault on the glass ceiling limiting women in politics, it has overshadowed Mr. McCain’s war-hero biography and reputation as a maverick.

Mrs. Clinton assailed Mr. Obama as a novice offering “just words,” questioned his ability to respond to a wee-hours national security crisis and threw down shots in a bar to court white working-class voters. She embraced a gas-tax “holiday,” derided by energy experts and editorialists, in arguing that she better understood the travails of ordinary Americans.

At various points, news reports questioned her tactics and suggested that her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had injected race into the campaign by likening Mr. Obama to the Rev. Jesse Jackson. The Clintons complained in turn of news media bias.

Bitter feelings remain. In a Washington Post interview over the weekend, Mr. Clinton offered cursory praise for his party’s presumed nominee; the Obama team has made it clear that Mrs. Clinton isn’t likely to become his running mate.

But McCain advisers paid close attention to the strong finish of a Clinton primary campaign that fell just short of defeating Mr. Obama. “The most important thing we learned is this: Hillary Clinton won 8 of the last 13 primaries,” said Steve Schmidt, Mr. McCain’s top strategist. “He is beatable.”

So Mr. McCain has ratcheted up his attacks, mocking his Senate colleague as a Paris Hilton-like “celebrity,” questioning his readiness to lead as commander in chief, calling for expanded offshore oil drilling in addition to a gas-tax holiday, and elevating attention to Mr. Obama’s African-American heritage by accusing him of playing “the race card.” As journalists question his tactics — for example, directly disputing a McCain advertisement claiming that Mr. Obama sought to bring television cameras on a visit to wounded soldiers — McCain aides assert the press is in “love” with him.

McCain advisers see solid strategic reasons for swinging harder than Mrs. Clinton did. Press-bashing has united Republicans for more than a generation. If many Democratic primary voters get squeamish at the specter of racial polarization, many culturally conservative swing voters that Mr. McCain needs in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan do not.

To some degree, Republicans feel compelled by public opinion to adopt an aggressive stance. The electorate’s desire for change is robust enough, polls indicate, that questions about Mr. Obama may represent the principal barrier to Democratic victory in November.

No Self-Referendum

Obama advisers say their task lies partly in reassuring voters that he can handle the presidency. But another part lies in redoubling their efforts, interrupted by his overseas trip, to move Mr. Obama out from behind speechmaking lecterns and to convey his on-the-ground understanding of voters’ economic struggles. He will try to do so this week in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana, among other places. Mr. McCain will hit Michigan and Ohio as well as Pennsylvania, with an appearance at the Sturgis, S.D., motorcycle rally to underscore his blue-collar sensibilities.

David Axelrod, the chief strategist for the Obama campaign, said voters “have to get more comfortable” with Mr. Obama. “As they see him, hear him, that will help. But ultimately they’re less interested in our biography than their own.”

Other Democrats say Team Obama must also redirect the spotlight onto his Republican rival. “No candidate ever wins a referendum on himself,” said the Democratic pollster Geoff Garin, who advised Mrs. Clinton. “He needs to make the election about McCain, too.”

By doing so, Mr. Obama stands a better chance of capitalizing on the most obvious way the general election battle is more auspicious for him. On touchstone issues like taxes, health care and the Iraq war, Mr. McCain remains aligned with a Republican president whose approval rating continues to hover around 30 percent, while public opinion polls seem to favor Mr. Obama on many issues.

That offers Mr. Obama a line of argument unavailable in his duel with Mrs. Clinton, whose policy stances closely resembled his own.

“Hillary had a very positive substantive policy agenda,” said Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton adviser. “The American people still don’t know what John McCain would do as president of the United States other than continue George Bush’s policies