As GOP Attacks Grow, He Links McCain, Bush--Sen. Barack Obama returned to the presidential campaign trail on Monday after a week-long Hawaiian vacation and tried to assure anxious Democrats that he is ready to fight back against Republican character attacks that grew sharper in his absence.
At a town hall meeting here, Obama slammed Sen. John McCain for continuing the politics and policies of President Bush, part of an attempt to tether the presumptive Republican nominee to the unpopular president. In recent days, the campaign and its supporters have also begun portraying the wealthy McCain as too out of touch to represent the common man.
Late last week, the campaign dismissed the rising concerns of Democrats as arm-chair quarterbacking with little understanding of Obama's strategy. By Monday, not even the candidate could let such concerns slide.
"Everywhere I go, people have told me, 'I'm getting nervous. The Republicans, they're so mean. They're going to Swift-boat you. They're doing things to you. What are you going to do?' " Obama said. "I have to just remind people that it is true that, just as John McCain has embraced George Bush's policies, he's embraced his politics. And the same people who brought you George Bush are now trying to package John McCain."
Concerns from Democrats are stoked by memories of 2004, when candidate John F. Kerry did not respond vigorously to misrepresentations of his military service on a Swift boat in Vietnam. Those attacks also came in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention, and the senator from Massachusetts struggled to recover from them for the rest of his campaign.
Democratic jitters have been rekindled since the release of "The Obama Nation," an anti-Obama book written by the co-author of "Unfit for Command," the 2004 book about Kerry's service. Among other falsehoods, author Jerome Corsi charges that Obama misrepresents his religion, saying that Muslim faith plays a significant role in his ideology, even though he is a practicing Christian.
McCain showed no signs of letting up his attacks Monday, charging that behind Obama's demand to end the Iraq war "lies the ambition to be president."
"Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory," the senator from Arizona told the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Orlando. "In short, both candidates in this election pledge to end this war and bring our troops home. The great difference is that I intend to win it first."
At four events Sunday and again here Monday, Obama delivered pep talks and said he is prepared for the worst that Republicans will throw at him. Democrats may be disappointed that he hasn't opened up a significant lead to match voter discontent with Bush, Obama acknowledged. But McCain is a formidable opponent, he said, and despite Bush's woes the GOP is experienced at winning national elections.
"You have a candidate who doesn't take any guff," the presumptive Democratic nominee assured donors in San Francisco on Sunday night.
As Obama sharpens his attacks, Democratic allies have detected a green light from the campaign and have taken them much further. Last Thursday, the AFL-CIO sent out what it billed as "an important union message," which depicted McCain as an out-of-touch plutocrat.
"McCain's worth . . . over $100 million. . . . He owns 10 houses. . . . He flies around on a $12.6 million corporate jet. . . . He walks around in $520 Italian loafers," the mailer states. "If John McCain lost his Social Security, he'd get by just fine. Would you?"
After Obama strategist David Axelrod took up the same cudgel, the Democratic National Committee, the Service Employees International Union and liberal filmmaker Robert Greenwald hammered the theme, with videos and statements showing off McCain's Phoenix high-rise; his beach condominiums in Coronado and La Jolla, Calif.; his ranch in Sedona, Ariz.; his apartment in Arlington; and his Ferragamo shoes.
Still, some strategists close to Obama say he needs to hit harder, be more specific in his attacks, and delve into McCain's character the way McCain has hit Obama's.
"They need to draw a clearer contrast and not be shy or flinch from doing it," said a Chicago Democrat close to the campaign, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be candid. "He's running a commercial now that says [McCain] voted with Bush 95 percent of the time -- on what? And what about all the flip-flops?"
Writing for the online Democratic Strategist, party communications consultant James Vega outlined a character attack that Obama could pick up. He said McCain has become "a pale, diminished shadow" of his former self, so desperate to win the election that he has sacrificed "his deepest principles and his personal honor" and allowed "men he once despised . . . to manipulate him."
"McCain is actually profoundly vulnerable to a powerful, aggressive and damaging attack on his character," Vega concluded.
Other Democrats are showing deference to Obama and his campaign staff, who resisted repeated calls for a more negative approach during the drawn-out primary fight and came out on top.
"You always have a group of people in Washington whose political profession is to get nervous during elections," said Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), an Obama adviser. "McCain has failed to put forward a positive case for a McCain presidency. He's entrenched himself in this administration, and that's going to turn into the biggest strategic blunder of this campaign."
At least publicly, Obama is showing no sign of worry, but for the first time he's acknowledging the concern of others.
"Democrats, because we've burned in the last few elections, get nervous and skittish right around this time," Obama told about 350 people who paid $28,500 for a VIP dinner in San Francisco on Sunday night. "They say, 'Oh, no, here the Republicans come -- they're so mean and they're going to be doing all these things. Obama is a funny name, and who knows what they're going to do?' "
"So keep your stress to a minimum," he instructed them.