Friday's front page was an early warning flare for potential Democratic nominee Barack Obama- watch out for underhanded Republican attacks.
He applied a double standard. While Hillary Clinton merely "presses" and "criticizes" Obama, the GOP "mocks"and "attacks"him. Yet this clip of Clinton's "celestial choirs will be singing" crack at a campaign appearancesounds a lot like mockery, and Clinton's acolytes have both dealt the race card and brought up Obama's past drug use on many occasions. Nagourney mentioned none of that, insisting instead that the Republican "onslaught" will be worse.
When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton goes after Senator Barack Obama these days, she presses him on the details of his health care plan, criticizes the wording of his campaign mailings and likens his promise of change to celestial choirs.
But if Mr. Obama becomes the Democratic presidential nominee, he is sure to face an onslaught from Republicans and their allies that will be very different in tone and intensity from what he has faced so far.
In the last few days alone, Senator John McCain has mocked a statement Mr. Obama made about Al Qaeda in Iraq. The Tennessee Republican Party, identifying him with his middle name as Barack Hussein Obama, suggested that his foreign policy would be shaped by people who are anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.
Yet the shifting tone offers a glimpse of the Republican playbook as the party adapts to the prospect that it will be running against Mr. Obama rather than Mrs. Clinton.
It is a reminder that should Mr. Obama win the nomination, he will be playing on a more treacherous political battleground as his opponents - scouring through his record of votes and statements and his experiences before he entered public life - look for ways to portray him as out of step with the nation's values, challenge his appeal to independent voters and emphasize his lack of experience in foreign policy and national security.
Some of this will almost certainly take the shape of the Internet rumors and whispering campaigns that have popped up against Mr. Obama since he got into the race, like the false reports that he is Muslim. Others will no doubt come from the types of shadowy independent committees that have played a big role in campaigns in recent years.
Nagourney is very protective of Democratic presidential candidates. At the 2004 Republican convention, he accused speaker Rudy Giuliani of "batter"-ing John Kerry "with almost ruthless abandon," while Bush went on a "fierce attack" on Kerry in March 2004.
The Times finally mentioned (in one sentence) the latest National Journal rating showing Obama to be the most liberal Senator, but continued to lecture Republicans for bad taste.
But others will simply draw on Mr. Obama's voting record and speeches, interviews and debate appearances. Mr. McCain's aides said their first line of attack would be to portray him as a liberal, and they have already begun pointing to a rating in The National Journal, based on his votes, of Mr. Obama as the most liberal member of the Senate.
Though Mr. McCain has vowed repeatedly to wage a tough if respectful campaign - he chastised a conservative talk radio host this week for disparaging Mr. Obama and invoking his middle name - his aides have left no doubt that they will draw sharp distinctions with him on issues that Mrs. Clinton has never been able to use. Foremost among them is Iraq.
Should Mr. Obama win the nomination, his candidacy could well be a test of whether these tactics still work or whether, used against a candidate who is trying to cultivate an appeal that transcends policy specifics, would fall flat this time. The fact that Mr. McCain felt compelled to rebuke some critics of Mr. Obama over the past few days suggests he might see a danger in attacking too aggressively.
But Mr. McCain clearly will not control all of the voices that could oppose Mr. Obama, from bloggers and talk radio hosts to other elected officials. Even parts of the Republican Party apparatus can transmit messages that the presidential nominee cannot or will not.
After the Republican National Committee rebuked the Tennessee Republican Party for a news release this week using Mr. Obama's middle name and a picture showing him in a traditional African outfit - Mr. McCain also expressed his disapproval - the state party removed the middle name and the picture.
But for at least some period of time, it left the text of the release on its Web site, seeking to link Mr. Obama to the views of some of his most controversial supporters, including Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam.