Liberal Advocacy Groups Take Aim at McCain

Sen. John McCain, with former senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), center, greets supporters in Cleveland after a town hall meeting.
Sen. John McCain, with former senator Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), center, greets supporters in Cleveland after a town hall meeting. (By Gerald Herbert -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A coalition of liberal advocacy groups pledged yesterday to mount a $20 million campaign aimed at Sen. John McCain and other Republicans, the latest sign that both parties have shifted their focus to the general election even before their nomination contests are settled.

Former Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards has yet to endorse Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, but in announcing the new effort to link McCain to the war in Iraq and to the faltering economy, he made it clear that he is looking beyond his party's nomination fight.

"We want to make sure the American people know they have a very clear choice in this election," he said. "It's between ending the Iraq war and focusing on the economic needs of our country, and Senator McCain, the Republican nominee who wants to continue the war and continue the incredibly failed policies of George Bush."

As the primary competitions continue, both political parties and their allies say they have no choice but to jump into the general-election contest. GOP operatives, increasingly focused on Obama, see the coming weeks as a unique opportunity to erode his appeal as a "post-partisan" politician and to define him as a liberal while Clinton still has his attention. With the economy souring and the country approaching the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, Democratic operatives and their allies worry that a critical political moment will be lost unless they seize it.

"We wanted to be prepared in case a Democratic nominee was chosen early, to make sure that person hits the ground running," said Karen Finney, the Democratic National Committee's communications director. "But if we don't have a nominee, we will be the place to go on offense."

The DNC filed a formal complaint yesterday with the Federal Election Commission, demanding an investigation of whether McCain violated campaign finance laws he helped write when he asked to opt out of the public financing system. The new anti-McCain coalition, led by, Americans United for Change and the Service Employees International Union, will split its money between advertising, grass-roots organizing, and get-out-the-vote efforts aimed not only at McCain but at other Republican lawmakers who oppose their moves to end the Iraq war., an antiwar military group, will begin an advertising campaign on Washington cable stations this week, featuring Capt. Rose Forrest, an Iraq war veteran, holding her baby son and saying, "John McCain says its okay with him if the U.S. spends the next thousand years in Iraq. . . . This is my little boy. What kind of commitment are you making to him? How about a thousand years of affordable health care?"

McCain underscored his vulnerability on Iraq yesterday. Asked what would happen in the general election if he could not convince Americans that the war was succeeding, he said: "Then I lose."

"Let me not put it that stark," he quickly added. "Let me just put it this way: Americans will judge my candidacy on how, first and foremost, on how they believe I can lead the country, both from our economy and for national security."

On the campaign trail, McCain is now focused almost entirely on a general-election message. He does not mention former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, his remaining challenger, instead focusing on the issues on which he would clash with Democrats in the fall.

"All Republicans learned the lesson from the [Robert J.] Dole campaign that there is no break between when the nominees are decided and the general election" contest begins, said Steve Duprey, a McCain adviser. "The lesson is: You need to mobilize immediately."

For months, Clinton was the focus of attacks from the Republican National Committee. But the RNC made an abrupt shift last week. During Thursday's Democratic debate in Texas, the committee blitzed supporters and journalists with no fewer than 15 messages castigating "Obama's reckless economic policies," "Obama's new vulnerability" and Obama's immigration stance, among other positions.

Almost daily, RNC Chairman Robert M. "Mike" Duncan accuses Obama of being unprepared to be commander in chief. And campaign controversies that Obama supporters have blamed Clinton's campaign for fomenting have quietly been seeded by Republicans. GOP operatives, speaking on the condition of anonymity, claimed credit for digging up videos of campaign speeches by Massachusetts Gov. Deval L. Patrick that were echoed by Obama's and for bringing to light a comment by Michelle Obama that her husband's rise has made her proud of her country for the first time.

Republicans now sense they have a narrow window in which to define Obama and turn around what they see as uncritical media coverage of his surge.

"It's not going to come to complete fruition now, but to sow some of those seeds of doubt, you look at the press coverage over the last 10 days, you notice a healthy skepticism," RNC spokesman Danny Diaz said.

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