There was a time, not so long ago, when the advisers to John McCain worried a great deal about running against Barack Obama. "We'll never get those kind of crowds," a McCain aide admitted, almost mournfully, to a NEWSWEEK reporter as they stood watching television coverage of a packed Obama rally in South Carolina last January. Obama seemed to have a kind of transcendent power, an ability to convince voters that he was not just another politician. Most McCain aides at the time wanted to run against Hillary Clinton, whom they regarded as a traditional tax-and-spend Democrat with unusually high negative ratings.
But lately, McCain aides have been making gleeful jokes about Obama. On the campaign trail, at dinner with reporters, they sometimes order the arugula salad, poking fun at some comments Obama made last summer in Iowa ("Anybody gone into Whole Foods lately and see what they charge for arugula?"). "Do you see how much they are charging for this?" a McCain aide asked a reporter at one such dinner at a restaurant, pointing to the menu and feigning shock. Following Hillary Clinton's lead, the McCain team sees an opportunity to paint Obama as an out-of-touch elitist, a Harvard toff who nibbles daintily at designer salads while the working man, worried about layoffs at the plant, belts another shot. Though the McCain advisers are divided about who would make the more beatable candidate in November, they see a chance to peel off Reagan Democrats--older working-class voters--in key swing states of the rust belt if Obama is the Democratic nominee. While McCain himself is publicly neutral on which Democrat he would prefer to oppose, in recent weeks he has noticeably gone easier on Clinton than Obama, perhaps out of hopes of winning over some of her working-class base.