Alter: Obama vs. McCain

The democratic race isn't over yet. Hillary Clinton may still prevail. But the debate featuring Barack Obama and John McCain has already begun. The good news is that a contest between them has the potential to be spirited without being ugly. It may even focus on issues that actually matter to Americans. Imagine that! Instead of an examination of Al Gore's personality traits (2000) or a refighting of Vietnam (2004), we may get a real debate about war and peace, taxes and spending, duty and hope. Or maybe I'm dreaming.

The contrast is already stark. Obama is 46 and looks 40; McCain is 71 and looks closer to 80, though he's got more energy than someone half his age. Their matchup would represent the largest age gap between major-party presidential candidates in American history. The campaign would pit change vs. experience, fresh vs. tested, green vs. gray. Once their niceties about one's heroism and the other's inspiration are dispensed with, Obama would try to make the Arizona senator look like a hypocritical, clueless and warlike geezer, while McCain would suggest that the Illinois senator is a naive, liberal and dreamy kid.

The night of the Chesapeake primaries offered a preview. Obama reminded a Wisconsin crowd that McCain had recently said we might be mired in Iraq for 100 years. He suggested that his early stance against the war would strike a better contrast with McCain than Hillary's early support. He also signaled that he would hit McCain for reversing his opposition to President Bush's tax cuts. Obama quoted McCain as saying in 2001 that the tax cuts offended his "conscience" because "so many of them go to the most fortunate." But that was then. "Somewhere along the road to the Republican nomination, the Straight Talk Express lost its wheels," Obama said, trying to make McCain look like just another status quo politician. Every effort by McCain to consolidate the conservative base will be met with a fusillade from the Democrats, with even his position on torture subjected to charges of flip-flopping. Expect to hear references to "Bush-McCain policies" ad nauseam.

Because Obama isn't the surefire nominee, McCain hasn't gone after him hard yet. But surrounded (unhelpfully) by geriatric politicians in Virginia last week, he argued that when a politician offers "only rhetoric" instead of "sound and proven ideas," the result "is not a promise of hope. It is a platitude." This line of attack hasn't worked well for Hillary; voters like platitudes if they're musical enough. Even so, McCain may have some presentational advantages that go beyond his compelling personal narrative. He does especially well in town-hall settings, where he deftly deploys his quirky charm to engage with (and often win over) people who disagree with him on many things. Obama's campaign "is beginning to approach the level of a messianic complex," says one McCain aide who doesn't want to go public before the Democrats settle on their nominee. "McCain's is about putting the country first. I like that contrast."

Their differences on some big issues are negligible. With any luck, they'll try to outdo each other on expanding national service. Immigration is unlikely to play a major role, absent a third-party effort. But should Obama opt out of public financing of his fall campaign, as his aides hinted last week, McCain will pounce. Besides pork-barrel spending, campaign-finance reform is the only domestic issue where McCain works up any real passion. That's a problem, because he'd better find some on health care and come up with a more convincing plan, pronto. On the faltering economy, likely to be central, neither man has any management experience. The question is who can better fake a deep knowledge he doesn't possess, with the edge going to Obama as the change agent.

To compensate for the huge gap in national-security experience, Obama might pick retired general Anthony Zinni, Sen. Jack Reed (a West Point graduate) or former senator Sam Nunn as his running mate. He would stress homeland security, crushing Al Qaeda and how McCain's support for the Iraq War has harmed the military and cost trillions that could be better spent at home. The last argument would be used to blunt any GOP attack on the high cost of Obama's liberal social programs. (The $233 million Alaska "bridge to nowhere" that McCain complains about incessantly is equal to less than 18 hours in Iraq.) McCain will put plenty of distance between himself and Bush on the war's execution. And he'll slam Obama for being willing to sit down with dictators without preconditions, a sign, he'll say, that the junior senator isn't ready.

Neither Obama nor McCain is a natural counterpuncher or champion debater. Obama has lost most of the Democratic debates to Clinton on points. In their 2000 debates, McCain was bested by Bush. Others will try to poison the process. Assorted scum will falsely call Obama a Muslim or McCain the "Manchurian candidate." Independent "527" committees may even try to fling mud-ball ads featuring Obama's black-nationalist pastor or McCain's "cover-up" of live POWs. But that will all likely be background noise to a substantive choice between two decent men—unless one of them is a woman.

Alter: Obama vs. McCain | U.S.