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The Content of Their Characters

GOP presidential candidate John McCain, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

By Dan Balz
Barack Obama and John McCain have shown remarkable resilience and political skill in navigating to the starting line of the general election. But their victories also underscored another reality as they begin the general election. Neither is a wholly finished candidate.

Obama and McCain share an important attribute, which both demonstrated in winning their party's presidential nominations: perseverance in the face of adversity and challenge.

The Republican race turned on the question of who would be the last candidate standing. It's easy therefore to describe McCain's victory as one in which his rivals had as much to do with his success as he did. But the reality is that McCain's comeback from a descent into near-irrelevance 11 months ago was as much the result of personal fortitude and resilience as it was the mistakes of others.

Few other candidates would have, let alone could have, weathered what he and his campaign went through. For anyone who doubted his resolve -- and given his experience as a Vietnam POW, there can be few doubters -- McCain again showed a fundamental character trait that cannot be underestimated.

"Senator McCain's number one quality during the primaries was his unique ability to manage the high profile crisis his campaign experienced when it imploded around him and still effectively communicated his core themes to Republican voters," wrote Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.

As John Weaver, McCain's former top adviser put it over the weekend, "The most obvious strength exhibited was perseverance, as he gutted out a tough win in New Hampshire literally on his back. No creative strategy; no fancy messaging; just an old warrior taking to the political battlefield. Clearly this is an important trait in any successful President, as they have to navigate dark days from time to time. However, the positive trait 'perseverance' can turn into its more negative cousin 'stubbornness' and we've seen recently where that can lead the country."

Obama's steadiness as he fought off early doubts about his message and strategy, then weathered a series of controversies, is just as remarkable, given his limited experience on the national stage. Staring down the Clinton machine certainly did toughen him, as he said in the closing days of the competition with Hillary Clinton.

"At no point did he seem intimidated by the process, the large stage he was playing on or the much heralded Clinton team," Weaver noted. "That should serve him well in the general election and serve the country well if he is elected. The other was discipline. All campaigns ultimately reflect the character traits of the candidate and the Obama campaign has been the most disciplined in either party."

"He has remained remarkably consistent in style, tone, and message for 18 months -- despite the pressures of pundits second-guessing him and opponents picking at him," Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler noted in an e-mail message. "Clinton, in contrast, was constantly tinkering with the brand and her strategy."

Democratic pollster Mark Mellman pointed to another strength of Obama's, as shown in the primaries, which is a talent for inspiring people to act. "Without followers there are no leaders and inspiration is the most important tool leaders have with which to create followers," he wrote. He added, "Obama's ability to lead and inspire was central to his victory, against formidable odds, demonstrating that strength like few others ever have."

Obama's inspirational qualities represent a clear challenge to McCain. The Arizona senator's life story is one that will rouse many Americans, but his performance as a candidate day in, day out, may not. The contrast between Obama and McCain on the final night of the primary season was stark, and unnerving to many Republicans.

What are the major questions the two candidates must answer over the next five months?

For McCain the economy looms as a major test. "His number one challenge will be to effectively communicate in a clear and meaningful way how his policies will turn the economy around," Bonjean wrote.

Mellman agreed. "The big question is does he have competence or even the interest in economic issues that are animating most Americans," he wrote. Noting that McCain remains mostly identified with national security issues (and campaign finance as well), he added, "Does he have the ability to broaden his passions to incorporate the issues ordinary Americans care most about?"

Scott Reed, who ran Bob Dole's campaign in 1996, agreed that the economy is a big test for McCain, but put Iraq as an even greater question mark around his candidacy. "The biggest question will be if voters, especially independents and Reagan Democrats, are willing to accept his direction on Iraq."

Obama emerged from the primaries stronger -- and weaker. He is stronger in that he was toughened by the long fight with Clinton; weaker in the sense that his flaws became more obvious. "He did not wear over time (shown by his stumble across the finish line)," Fowler noted.

Obama won, barely, half the Democratic vote, and in the final months ran slightly behind Clinton. Latinos, women and working class whites -- all either core elements of the Democratic base or vital to winning the White House -- have shown resistance to his candidacy.

More broadly, can Obama put more details into his message of change? More than any other candidate, he tapped into the mood of the country with his promise to change Washington. Banning lobbyists' contributions to the Democratic National Committee is a symbolic step but not one that will fundamentally alter the way Washington does business.

Obama could face more scrutiny about what he intends to do to deliver on that promise. He will need a substantive agenda to go along with his lofty rhetoric and a clearer sense of his priorities as president.

After almost 18 months of non-stop campaigning, Obama and McCain may seem familiar figures in America's living rooms. But there is much more for each to reveal over the next five months.

By Web Politics Editor  |  June 9, 2008; 11:27 AM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , John McCain  
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