Blustery rows between potential White House foes senators John McCain and Barack Obama, more typical of an election’s frenzied last days than its opening shots, may augur a rancorous slog through to November.
Despite both pledging to elevate the tone of US politics, the senators are trading pithy personal jibes, as suspense ebbs from Obama’s marathon Democratic race with Senator Hillary Clinton and eyes turn towards a general election.
McCain is painting Obama as naive, weak and dangerous, arguing he is an opportunist whose poetic rhetoric masks inexperience.
Obama’s offensive so far is encapsulated by one of his new attack lines: “John McCain has decided to run for [President] George [W.] Bush’s third term.”
While there is mutual respect between Washington veterans Clinton and McCain, it is equally clear there is already festering antipathy between McCain and Obama.
The 46-year-old Illinois lawmaker seems to get under the 71-year-old Republican’s skin.
“For a young man with very little experience, he has done very well,” McCain sarcastically told supporters in Florida last week.
The Arizona senator is already attacking Obama and his ideas, including his offer to talk to the leaders of US foes, as a dangerous risk in a world thick with threats.
In one recent swipe, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds responded to Obama’s idea for an easing of restrictions on contacts between Americans and Cubans as “weak” and “reckless.”
Stressing Obama’s inexperience is also a veiled way for McCain, 72, to defuse the age question.
McCain is also taking potshots at Obama’s character and ridiculing his brand of “new” politics.
He hammered Obama this week after the Illinois senator criticized his stand on a veterans benefits bill.
“It is typical, but no less offensive that Senator Obama uses the Senate floor to take cheap shots at an opponent and easy advantage of an issue he has less than zero understanding of,” McCain said.
Obama’s strikes have been less personal but still mocking.
He jokes that McCain’s signature bus, the Straight Talk Express, has taken a diversion — and has provoked McCain by painting him as a neophyte on economics.
Obama has also sought to tie McCain to Bush in foreign policy, saying his fellow senator would be happy to wage a 100-year war in Iraq.
The attack is no less effective for being a selective use of McCain’s words. When he made the infamous remark, McCain seemed to be talking about a long-term peacekeeping mission, not a war.
Obama has also subtly referred to his age, talking about how admiring he is of the Arizona’s senator’s “half-century” of service to the US.