In the two weeks since Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee, John McCain has demonstrated a knack for driving the daily political debate, forcing his opponent to respond to a challenge to meet in town hall debates, accusing him of being "delusional" about terrorism and saying he flip-flopped on public financing for his campaign.
But even as McCain's strategists claim tactical victories, Republicans outside the campaign worry that underlying weaknesses in its organization and message are costing him valuable time to make the case for his own candidacy.
Hmm. Political campaigns are zero-sum. It's not the worst thing for McCain to lose the chance to make the case for himself if he can deny Obama the same opportunity. And McCain did a spectacular job of stopping Obama this last week. Obama was trying to focus on the economy, and he got virtually no traction because McCain has been driving the debate by attacking him on debates, public financing, and terrorism.
The first two, especially, seemed to take a toll. Political reporters are interested in politics, not policy, and a process fight will always eclipse a debate over economic plans. And it's pretty clear that Obama's image has been tainted by the process fights. Look at this passage from another article in today's Post:
In the opening weeks of the general-election campaign, Sen. Barack Obama has moved aggressively to shape his campaign and offered a clear road map for the kind of candidate he is likely to become in the months ahead: an ambitious gamer of the electoral map, a ruthless fundraiser and a scrupulous manager of his own biography in the face of persistent concerns about how he is perceived.
A few weeks ago, Obama's ability to inspire hundreds of thousands of people to make small donations over the internet was considered a sign of his appeal. Now it's "ruthless." The small, unstated assumptions like this about candidates' motives are really the things that drive political coverage and public perception. If McCain is getting reporters to think of Obama as an unprincipled operator, then I'd say he's doing pretty well.
UPDATE: Jon Cohn strengthens the case for McCain's good week.