John McCain — acknowledging his near inevitable selection as the Republican nominee for president — has all but forgotten about Hillary Clinton and is targeting Barack Obama in an apparent pivot toward a general election campaign.
That leaves the Illinois senator battling a two-front war, with little opportunity to bask in his 10 straight Democratic presidential primary victories since Feb. 5, including back-to-back wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii on Tuesday.
Clinton is looking to close the gap and revive her campaign on March 4, when high-delegate states Texas and Ohio vote alongside Rhode Island and Vermont. In the meantime, Obama must fend off charges of inexperience and empty rhetoric on both flanks — from Clinton and McCain.
McCain could pose the more difficult challenge. On Tuesday, the Arizona senator ’s campaign effectively drew attention to Michelle Obama’s “patriotism” after she said she was proud of this country for the first time in her adult life.
McCain continued the assault on Wednesday, hitting Obama on campaign finance pledges, foreign policy experience and presidential credentials.
In a victory speech on Tuesday night after his win in the Wisconsin Republican primary over Mike Huckabee, McCain described his presumed rival’s pitch as an “eloquent but empty call for change” and taunted Obama as “an inexperienced candidate who once suggested bombing our ally, Pakistan.”
In a conference call with reporters early Wednesday, Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice accused McCain of “misrepresenting and distorting” Obama’s positions on Pakistan.
She said Obama laid out a lengthy Pakistan policy last summer in a speech at the Woodrow Wilson Institute where, responding to National Intelligence Estimate reports that Al Qaeda had re-constituted its forces in Pakistan, Obama called for air strikes against Al Qaeda targets if the United States had clear-cut intelligence.
McCain responded that Obama “suggested bombing Pakistan without their permission. That is still bombing Pakistan.” He added that even if Obama wanted to bomb the country, it would be “naive” to broadcast what he’s going to do before he does it.
The two candidates also continue to clash over the Iraq war, with Obama charging Tuesday that McCain “represents the policies of yesterday” by showing a willingness to leave troops in Iraq for many years.
Rice noted Wednesday that Obama’s Tuesday night declaration that he will end the war in Iraq in 2009 is a goal, not a firm policy commitment. She said Obama reserves the right to revisit troop levels in Iraq upon taking the oath of office.
Whether the newest back-and-forth is the result of McCain trying to prevent Obama from sealing the Democratic nomination or wanting to get a jump start on undermining his expected opponent is unclear.
Head-to-head polls show McCain faring better against Clinton in a hypothetical general election than against Obama.
Nevertheless, McCain, a four-term senator, is expanding his Obama talking points, also raising questions about his character and a seeming turnaround on a pledge to accept public financing for the November election, if he is the nominee.
Obama’s campaign said recently it would not commit to public financing, even though Obama wrote in a November questionnaire from the Midwest Democracy Network that he would pledge alongside McCain to use the public funds in November if he is the nominee. The public financing program limits the candidates to $85 million for the general election.
“I hope he will keep his commitment to the American people. That is not transparency nor is it keeping one’s words to the American people to take public financing,” McCain said. “We either keep our word or we don’t keep our word. I intend to keep my word to the American people.”
Obama wrote in USA Today Wednesday that he’s still interested in “a meaningful agreement in good faith that results in real spending limits,” and called on addressing the amount McCain can spend for the general election while the Democratic primary contest is still in flux.
McCain called that “Washington doublespeak.”
Obama’s spokesman Bill Burton hit back: “John McCain is in no place to question anyone on pledges when he abandoned the latest campaign finance reform efforts in order to run for the Republican nomination and went back on his commitment to take public financing for the primary election this year.”
According to financial disclosure reports, McCain spent $38 million in 2007 on his primary campaign, and raised another $12 million in January. Obama spent $83.5 million during that same time and raised $32 million in January.
The back and forth with McCain comes as Obama is still locked in a heated battle with Clinton.
Though he’s enjoying front-runner status and his campaign is claiming a “wide, wide lead,” the latest Associated Press tallies show Obama with 1,336 delegates and Clinton with 1,251.
Like McCain, Clinton is aggressively going after Obama for being all talk. Speaking in New York City on Wednesday, Clinton cast the election as a choice between “speeches and solutions.”
“It’s time we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions. Americans have a choice in this election and that choice matters. … While words matter greatly, the best words in the world aren’t enough unless you match them with action,” she said.
“It sounds like they got together on their attack points to go after Obama,” joked Democratic strategist and FOX News contributor Bob Beckel.
FOX News’ Major Garrett, Aaron Bruns and Mosheh Oinounou and The Associated Press contributed to this report.