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Borger: Candidate noise all in the background

  • Story Highlights
  • Borger: McCain, Obama testing messages, strategies for the general election
  • Borger: Obama taken off-message by McCain camp assault over the last week
  • Borger: McCain has had more success with the Britney-Paris ad
  • Borger: When Americans aren't engaged in the campaign, the polls stagnate
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By Gloria Borger
CNN Senior Political Analyst
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- In case you hadn't noticed, this is the summertime lull in the presidential race.

Borger says Americans are headed on vacation and not engaged in the campaign.

Campaigns use the summer lull to test their messages and strategies, Gloria Borger says.

It's also the time when candidates road-test messages, strategies, speeches and ads for the general election. Not to mention the fact that it's the run-up to the all-important party convention, and the time when the candidates pick their running mates.

That way, by the fall, each party nominee will be a "man in full," with a ticket, a message and a game plan. That is, if all goes well.

So far, this summer has been full of charges and counter-charges, but nothing has moved the dial much. The Obama campaign used the summertime lull to beef up its foreign policy cred with a trip to the Middle East and Europe, ending with a rally in front of 200,000 people in Berlin, Germany.

By most accounts, the trip was a success, but judging from the polls, it was a nonstarter. Never mind the extraordinary pictures or even Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's timely support for Obama's troop withdrawal plan. American's either weren't impressed or weren't paying much attention.

And that was the whole problem for Sen. John McCain. If the public wasn't glued to its television sets watching Obama, it was paying even less attention to McCain.

The campaign needed to find a way to break through all of the noise about Obama, and tried -- if a tad desperately -- to do so. First came the charge, hotly disputed, that Obama decided to go to the gym rather than meet with the troops. The McCain campaign had more success breaking through with the Britney-Paris ad, which made for good television, but left lots of independent voters (and rank-and-file Republicans) scratching their heads.

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Then came the grenade: McCain campaign manager Rick Davis charged that Obama had played the race card in a speech. Obama denied it, but it made news. Finally, the "Obama as Moses" Web video -- this time, silly, but talked about.

During this summer interlude, the McCain campaign made a key strategic decision: Turn the fact that this campaign is about Obama into a virtue. McCain advisers believe it's better for them if this election is a referendum on Obama rather than on President Bush. The strategy is to try to define Obama as presumptuous, untested and too much of a risk to be president. In other words, hand voters some reasons not to vote for Obama.

McCain camp tactics have worked at least to some extent, taking Obama off-message over the last week. Last week's message was supposed to be about the economy, and Obama found himself defending his remarks on race. This week, it's energy -- we'll see if Obama has better luck breaking through on that front.

Of course, Obama has another choice this week: He could decide to break through on his vice-presidential nod, which would guarantee a lot of attention. The advantage of naming a ticket this early is that it allows the vice presidential candidate to introduce himself (or herself) to the voters and start raising money. But waiting until right before the Democratic convention in late August also has advantages. It draws voters' attention by creating a sense of anticipation and excitement before the big event.

All of which brings us back to this summertime thing: The lull is with us and the Olympics are upon us. Americans are headed on vacation and when they're not engaged in the campaign, the polls stagnate. They will start moving again, no doubt about it. But for now, the candidate noise is all in the background.

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