Sometimes you don't need the secret memo, a Deep Throat source, or the combination to the safe to get the story. Sometimes it's lying right there in front of you, a series of fragments ready to be pieced together.
Such is the case when it comes to John McCain's general election strategy for defeating Barack Obama. For weeks now, the Arizona Senator's campaign has been laying its cards on the table, spelling out a strategy for November. Here's a look at seven of their key strategies.
1. Paint Obama as a False Messiah
The big debut for this message came on the night of the Virginia and Maryland primaries. Mike Huckabee was still in the race, but the McCain campaign wanted to pivot towards the general election. So at an Alexandria Holiday Inn, McCain offered these words: "I do not seek the presidency on the presumption that I am blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need." The code was not hard to break. McCain was calling out Obama as an unfulfilled prophet, built up on lofty rhetoric and personal charisma. McCain's advisors have been hammering the theme ever since, privately speaking skeptically of Obama's big crowds and "Yes We Can" ritual chants. "The lofty rhetoric," said Steve Schmidt, McCain's message man, on a recent flight. "It's nonsense." This will not let up. McCain's campaign calculates that it must put a dent in Obama's powerful aura to keep a Republican in the White House.
2. Work, Woo and Win the Referees
McCain's willingness to parry and thrust with the press is already the stuff of campaign legend. And if the candidate has his way, the legend will only grow. "He is the best earned media candidate I think in history," Rick Davis, the campaign manager, recently told The New York Times. (Earned media is another way of saying free media, or anything a campaign doesn't pay for.) "And so we will try to use that advantage." In recent weeks, the campaign has relaunched what advisers call the "Straight Talk Express," a time when groups of three or four reporters head to the front of the plane, or the back of the bus, for open-ended interviews. The technique exposes McCain to danger. His December admission that "economics is not something I've understood as well as I should" came during one such back of the bus session. But McCain's staff thinks its worth the risk, that by earning the understanding and admiration of reporters they can make Obama seem distant by comparison. Meanwhile, McCain adviser Mark Salter has adopted a traditional "bad cop" role, regularly criticizing the press, alleging, for instance, that the media has formed a "protective barrier" around Obama.
3. Meet With the People, and Force Obama to Follow
The second part of McCain's earned media strategy is his people strategy. Some of McCain's best moments on the trail come in the uncontrolled give-and-take with a crowd. "The town hall meeting is John's best format," says Mark McKinnon, a media adviser for McCain. "He's a natural campaigner up close with the public." Back in 2004, the campaign crowds at George Bush events were designed to screen out Democrats. By contrast, McCain has so far reveled in free-form forums, taking questions in places historically hostile to Republicans, like New Orleans. The campaign has vowed to continue the same format as much as possible going forward. McCain's aides even hope to bring Obama out of his stadium events and put him on the same level. McKinnon has suggested joint appearances by Obama and McCain with questions from the audience and limited moderation. Obama has said he is open to the idea.
4. Claim the High Road Without Leaving the Low Road
Almost every day, McCain finds a reason to say that he wants to run "a respectful campaign." Given the mudslinging that is widely expected from all sides, this is a tenuous proposition. In the final days of the Republican primary, McCain came out hard against Mitt Romney, accusing him of saying that he wanted to set a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, even though Romney had not endorsed such a move. More recently, McCain has not shown that he is willing to lay off hardball politics. He has repeatedly brought up the fact that a Hamas spokesman said positive things about Obama, even though Obama did not reciprocate the compliments. McCain has also tried to tar Obama by his relationship with William Ayers, a once violent anti-Vietnam War activist, by demanding that Obama call on Ayers to apologize for his actions. (Obama has shot projectiles at McCain as well, misquoting McCain's willingness to have American troops in Iraq for "100 years.") The real message behind McCain's call for "a respectful campaign" appears more narrow: As the political debate disintegrates, which is all but inevitable, McCain wants to be seen as a fighter who can float above the fray.