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For Obama and McCain, the Bitter and the Sweet

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

So much for the liberal media.

John McCain and Barack Obama both appeared before the nation's newspaper editors yesterday. The putative Republican presidential nominee was given a box of doughnuts and a standing ovation. The likely Democratic nominee was likened to a terrorist.

At a luncheon for the editors hosted by the Associated Press, AP Chairman Dean Singleton quizzed Obama about whether he would send more troops to Afghanistan, where "Obama bin Laden is still at large?"

"I think that was Osama bin Laden," the candidate answered.

"If I did that, I'm so sorry!" Singleton said.

"This," Obama told the editors, is "part of the exercise that I've been going through over the last 15 months."

Bitter, are we?

The past few days have left a bad taste in the mouth of the Democratic front-runner. In his worst gaffe of the campaign, he asserted (in San Francisco!) that Middle Americans have turned to God and guns and against immigrants because they are "bitter" about their economic lot.

That let Hillary Clinton and McCain portray Obama as a member of the effete elite, alongside John Kerry (Turnbull & Asser shirts) and John Edwards ($400 haircuts). Regular gal Clinton (Wellesley '69, Yale Law '73, family income $109 million since her husband left the White House) even made the point by tossing back a shot of Crown Royal at a bar in Indiana on Saturday night.

To shed the elitist label and regain his common-man credentials, Obama picked an inauspicious venue -- the annual gathering of the media elite, the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The result is likely to make the Democrat even more bitter. On the same day, the two media darlings of the presidential election cycle came to address their base -- and McCain easily bested his likely opponent.

McCain's moderators, the AP's Ron Fournier and Liz Sidoti, greeted McCain with a box of Dunkin' Donuts. "We spend quite a bit of time with you on the back of the Straight Talk Express asking you questions, and what we've decided to do today was invite everyone else along on the ride," Sidoti explained. "We even brought you your favorite treat."

McCain opened the offering. "Oh, yes, with sprinkles!" he said.

Sidoti passed him a cup. "A little coffee with a little cream and a little sugar," she said.

The dueling appearances by McCain and Obama nicely captured the current dynamic in the presidential cycle. McCain, his nomination secure, had the luxury to joke and pander. Obama, wounded by the Democrats' internecine fighting, was defensive and somber.

Singleton, Obama's moderator, pointed out that a new poll showed the Democrat had lost the 10-point lead over McCain that he had in February. "The fact that our contest is still going on means that John McCain comes in here, and he's feeling pretty good," Obama answered. "He can be a little more deliberate and pace himself. And that probably explains the close in the polls."

McCain was indeed in high spirits as he entered the ballroom and invited the editors' "questions, comments or insults." Reading from a teleprompter, McCain said he was among friends. "I made a decision to be as accessible to the press as the press would prefer me to be, and perhaps even more than they would prefer." Accepting the doughnuts, McCain had a gift for the editors, too -- his support for a law shielding reporters from identifying their sources.

This left everybody in a good mood for the criticism of Obama that McCain tacked on the end of his speech. Americans don't "turn to their religious faith and cultural traditions out of resentment," he said. The candidate then took a seat with the two AP reporters and crossed his legs casually for the questions. Asked about his advanced age, he pretended to nod off in his chair. "Watch me campaign," he challenged. "Come on the bus again, my friends, all of you."

McCain got a standing ovation -- an honor Obama did not receive when his turn came two hours later.

The room and crowd were larger for Obama. The atmosphere was colder (this time, editors had to pass through metal detectors) and more formal (wine on each table and flowers on the dais). And the candidate was uncharacteristically flat.

"I know that I've kept a lot of you guys busy this weekend with the comments I made last week. Some of you might even be a little bitter about that," he joked, before plodding his way through an earnest apology ("I regret some of the words I chose"), an angry countercharge ("If I had to carry the banner for eight years of George Bush's failures, I'd be looking for something else to talk about, too") and a recitation of his commoner bona fides ("My mother had to use food stamps at one point").

But the combination failed to change the subject. The first question: "Can a Democrat talk about guns, God and immigration without getting in trouble?"

"I actually think it's possible," said the candidate.

Recent experience, however, argues otherwise. And Obama couldn't hide his pique -- particularly when the moderator asked if Clinton should "step aside."

"I have tried to figure out how to show restraint," he said, to avoid harming the ultimate nominee. "Senator Clinton may not feel that she can afford to be as constrained. But I'm sure that Senator Clinton feels like she's doing me a great favor, because she's been deploying most of the arguments that the Republican Party will be using against me in November."

Not that he's bitter about it.

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