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Will slow and steady win this race?

With the Democrats about to resolve the delegate dispute in Florida and Michigan, and with their primary season about to end, it’s quite possible that the Obama-Clinton clash of the titans will soon expire. When this happens, the party will begin to rally behind Obama, and his standing in the head-to-head polls with McCain (already fairly good) may well improve.

At that point, we’ll hear more of the already persistent claim that McCain has failed to take advantage of the time available to him during the extended Democratic civil war. But does this claim have merit?

This year’s presidential race is, above all, a referendum on two things: the Bush presidency (and the associated years of Republican control) and Barack Obama. The next most important factor is the McCain “brand.” This, in fact, is all that’s standing between McCain and a deficit in the polls of ten percentage points or more, but it still runs a clear third in the campaign hierarchy.

There isn’t much McCain can do to affect the referendum on Bush. Obviously, distancing himself from the president wouldn’t hurt, but he has done this over the years — it’s a key part of the McCain brand. To take extra steps now to distance himself would risk alienating the Bush supporters in the “base.” In addition, breaking with Bush on new matters, or changing his tone, would hurt the brand.

There are also limits to what McCain should do to affect the referendum on Obama. During the Obama-Clinton struggle, he has clashed with Obama on some important substantive issues. But to become involved in the more “personal” stuff would come across as unseemly, to the detriment of the brand.

The two obvious agenda items for McCain are (1) rally the skeptical conservative base and (2) establish his credentials on economic issues. But here again there are limits. To succeed in November, McCain must keep most of the base on his side, while retaining his appeal to independents and swing-voters including the many whose recent conversion are swelling the ranks of the Democratic party. Thus, he can only go so far to appease the base.

The best solution is to be McCain. For McCain is conservative on enough major issues to prevent large-scale defections where the only meaningful alternative is Obama. And McCain has done a reasonably good job of speaking forcefully on some of these issues. His speech on the judiciary is a good example. But McCain should not venture further and embrace conservative positions with which he is not comfortable.

As to the economy, McCain seems to have used the past few month to shore up his knowledge, and to issue serious pronouncments on several key economic/domestic issues. Not surprisingly, some of his positions are conservative; others are not.

In either case, this isn’t the kind of stuff that makes a splash, the way a punchy attack on Obama or a major shift in position would, which helps explain why some see the campaign as listless. But in McCain’s position, less splash is more. He’s the candidate with the clear and longstanding positive image. Obama is the one whose image, still being defined, is already less positive. The key for McCain is to protect his image (and indeed to reinforce it by taking on Obama in respectful, non-personal terms), while hoping for continued good news from Iraq and better news about the economy.

UPDATE: Obama reportedly steered a $100,000 earmark to his friend the toxic Rev. Pfleger. Earmarks, of course, are a core issue with McCain. Thus, depending on the facts, this may be one case where McCain can go after Obama on a matter that doesn’t strongly relate to policy without being perceived as resorting to a personal attack.

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