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Commentary: What to expect from McCain, Obama in 56 days

  • Story Highlights
  • Paul Begala: McCain will use Palin to fire up the base and in small states
  • Begala says McCain will try to focus campaign on biography, not issues
  • Obama should tie McCain to his voting record in support of Bush, he says
  • Begala: Expect the unexpected, the most nimble campaign should win
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By Paul Begala
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. Begala is not a paid political consultant for any politicians or candidates. His new book is "Third Term: Why George W. Bush Loves John McCain." For another view of where the campaign stands, read here

Paul Begala says John McCain's campaign is seeking to base campaign on biography, not issues.

Paul Begala says John McCain's campaign is seeking to base campaign on biography, not issues.

(CNN) -- Now that both conventions are over, Labor Day is behind us and the kids are back in school, let's take a look at how the last 56 days of the fall campaign may shape up:

What to look for from John McCain

I still think McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin was insane from a governing point of view, but she has clearly energized the conservative base of the GOP -- folks who have always been leery of McCain. Her selection and the relentlessly negative convention have fired up McCain's base.

The party of Reagan -- sunny optimism, criticism offered in folksy witticisms and the shake of a head -- is gone. This is the party of Giuliani and Palin: sarcastic, sneering, snotty and snide. I don't know why, but meanness plays with the GOP base.

But the right-wing base alone will not win this race. McCain needs to move to the middle, and the Palin pick makes that tougher. So expect him to send Palin to small markets, use her to fire up the right-wingers, and then get his butt to the swing states. Video See how both campaigns are targeting battleground states »

Let's face it, the Bush-Republican brand is dead. Selling the old Bush line in this economy would be like trying to sell tickets for the return trip on the Titanic after it sank.

So McCain is not going to make this a race about ideas. After all, he actually has voted with Bush 91 percent of the time. Perhaps that's why his campaign manager said this election was not about issues. McCain plainly wants this race to be about biography. His is actually the campaign built around a cult of personality.

McCain will continue to emphasize his remarkable suffering in service to our country. After months of research I have uncovered a heretofore unknown fact: John McCain was in the military. I'm pretty sure he was a POW. And I'm pretty sure Barack Obama was not. So expect to see McCain continue to run on his past rather than America's future.

The flip side of a character-based positive message is -- you guessed it -- a character-based negative campaign. I hate to say this, but the McCain campaign -- and its right-wing allies -- are going to play the politics of fear and smear.

You saw it in St. Paul: doughy Republicans scoffing at Barack Obama's time as a community organizer -- even though Obama's work was the embodiment of the values the GOP claims to believe in: faith-based, family-centered, self-help, hands-on, non-bureaucratic.

If you thought you'd seen it all with Willie Horton, the vicious attacks on Bill Clinton and his family (including John McCain himself cruelly mocking the appearance of then-12 year-old Chelsea), or the "swift-boating" of John Kerry, you ain't seen nothing yet. Obama's been maligned from the right as a Muslim, an elitist, a socialist -- and that's just the warm-up act.

What to look for from Barack Obama

For his part, Barack Obama needs to drill two numbers into the heads of every American: 91 and 134. 91 is the percentage of the time McCain has voted with Bush, and 134 is the number of corporate special interest lobbyists involved in the McCain campaign.

Obama will likely argue that no one who votes with Bush 91 percent of the time is a maverick, and that someone with 134 former or current lobbyists advising, funding or managing his campaign cannot be considered a reformer. If Obama can shatter the image of the maverick reformer, even McCain's heroic POW story will not be enough to win the White House.

On the positive side, Obama will likely stress the economy, including his plan to cut taxes for middle-class families and small business, as well as his plan for energy independence. The key to success will be connecting with voters.

As someone who was raised by a single mom, who knew real poverty, who went to the best schools with scholarships and student loans, Obama is a living testament to the power of the American Dream. He needs to connect emotionally, not intellectually.

The kid who came up the hard way cannot allow himself to be cast as an elitist by a guy who owns nine homes in three time zones. Joe Biden helps enormously on this front. He may have been selected for his foreign policy expertise, but his ability to touch the hearts of middle-class families makes him an indispensable asset to the sometimes professorial Sen. Obama.

All of this, of course, should be taken with a block of salt, not just a grain. A year and a half ago, I thought the general election would be Hillary Clinton versus Mitt Romney. No one knows what's around the next corner, much less the dozens of hair-pin turns between now and election day.

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The most important thing to keep in mind as this campaign unfolds is to expect the unexpected. The campaign that is more nimble, more aggressive, more free-thinking is the one that will be able to capitalize on the shifting terrain. The ability to improvise, whether in sports or warfare or politics, is often the most important talent of all.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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