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Clash of the Titans: McCain vs. Clinton

For anyone who thinks it's too early to talk about the next presidential election cycle, we give you Tuesday's back and forth between 2008 frontrunners John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York
Sen. Hillary Clinton smiles with attorney general candidate Andrew Cuomo, right, and gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer during Monday's Columbus Day parade in New York (Reuters).

Reacting to news that North Korea had allegedly tested a nuclear weapon, McCain called out Clinton by name for her suggestion that the Bush administration alone was to blame for the burgeoning threat posed by Kim Jong Il's regime.

"I would remind Senator Clinton and other Democrats critical of Bush administration policies that the framework agreement her husband's administration negotiated was a failure," said McCain. "The Koreans received millions in energy assistance. They diverted millions in food assistance to their military. And what did they do? They secretly enriched uranium."

McCain was referring to a little-noticed comment made by Clinton on Monday in which she attributed much of the struggles of containing North Korea to "failed policies" put forward by the current White House.

If McCain was trying to bait Clinton into a high-profile skirmish over the issue, it worked. Her office released a statement saying "it is unfortunate that Republicans such as John McCain continue to blindly defend their failed policies for partisan gain rather than exercise true leadership."

Zing!

Why would McCain deliberately attempt to draw Clinton into a public spat?

First, McCain must make clear to conservative voters who continue to harbor doubts about his GOP bona fides that he is ready, willing and able to take on Democrats when it comes to the most contentious issues of the day. What better way to send that message than to call out Hillary Clinton. No Democrat (with the possible exception of her husband) gets Republicans blood boiling like Clinton. Cast yourself as a Clinton critic -- especially on matters of foreign policy and national security -- and you're assured to win kudos from the ideological right within the party.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona
In publicly taking on Hillary Clinton, McCain hopes to play up to GOP activists who will be key to a 2008 presidential run. Above, McCain talks to the press during a campaign swing last week to Rhode Island on behalf of Sen. Lincoln Chafee, left. (AP Photo)

Second, by criticizing Clinton directly and engaging her in a war of words, McCain subtly elevates himself to the same level as the presumed Democratic frontrunner in 2008. Most Republicans believe that should Clinton decide to run for the nomination it is hers for the taking. McCain is quite quite a shoo-in for the GOP nomination, but there is little question he is one of two candidates (Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the other) seen as the most likely to become the Republican standardbearer in 2008.

McCain allies make little secret of the fact that they would relish a 2008 race between their candidate and Clinton, believing that if she is the Democratic nominee many moderates of both parties would side with McCain.

Polling shows McCain with a consistent single-digit edge over Clinton in hypothetical 2008 match-ups. A Marist/WNBC survey conducted in mid-September showed McCain at 49 percent and Clinton at 42 percent. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics survey in late August put McCain's lead at eight -- 47 percent to 39 percent.

The Fix predicts more jousting between Clinton and McCain over the next month and especially between Nov. 8 and the end of the year. Both Clinton and McCain seem all-but-certain to run for president and know that part of that process is taking on the most high-profile politician on the other side to show that you are itching for the fight.

For more on Clinton, her thinking and her plans for 2008, read Josh Green's exhaustive profile of the New York senator in this month's Atlantic Monthly. Read a portion of it here; to get the whole shebang you need to go out and buy the magazine.

Looking for more on McCain, his courtship of Bush-Cheney supporters and his plans for 2008, read Glenn Frankel's recent piece in The Washington Post magazine.

By Chris Cillizza  |  October 11, 2006; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: Eight Big Issues That Will Decide the Election

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