Despite a three-month head start, Senator John McCain has struggled to solidify lines of attack against Senator Barack Obama for the general election, Republican operatives say and some of his own advisers acknowledge, running into problems that bedeviled Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's primary campaign against Mr. Obama
The McCain camp faces the challenge of negatively defining an opponent who has a relatively short tenure in office and a thin record to dissect, unlike longer-serving senators like Mrs. Clinton or John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. McCain advisers also say they are wary of unleashing allies to attack Mr. Obama, given how some conservatives have overstepped and been criticized for racially tinged remarks.
That "short tenure" and "thin record" cut both ways, of course. And Healy took as fact the extremely arguable assumption that conservatives have "overstepped" on "racially tinged remarks" against Obama - none of which Healy bothered to actually cite.
Mr. McCain shook up the management of his campaign on Wednesday, in part because of concern within his organization and among Republicans generally about his difficulty in putting Mr. Obama on the defensive.
Like those unleashed by Mrs. Clinton's team in the winter and spring, the McCain camp's attacks on Mr. Obama have had a lurching quality for weeks now, several Republicans said in interviews. Some days Mr. McCain or his allies have gone after Mr. Obama's relative youth and inexperience, other days they have criticized his shifting positions (on public campaign financing) or policy stands (on guns and gasoline prices) or even his and his wife's patriotism.
McCain aides said Mr. Obama's comments about Iraq on Thursday provided perhaps their best opening yet to diminish his image. It came after weeks when they said they were struggling to portray Mr. Obama as a stereotypically two-faced politician who was willing to recalibrate his positions on Second Amendment rights (after a Supreme Court decision last month) and on public campaign financing (after he said he would pay for his fall campaign with private donations).
At the same time, they said they were trying to be careful about overreaching, noting that Mr. McCain has pledged to run a "respectful" campaign. They said Mr. McCain felt forced to distance himself from conservatives who sought to damage his opponent by using Mr. Obama's full name, Barack Hussein Obama, or by running a commercial that played up his ties to his former pastor, who has been criticized as making racially inflammatory remarks.