It was Sen. Obama, D-Ill., the clear front-runner for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, who started the exchange Thursday by taking a shot at Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., for backing President George W. Bush in opposing legislation to generously expand educational benefits for veterans of the U.S. military.
But McCain, who has the Republican presidential nomination sewn up, hit back fast and hard, pointedly contrasting Obama's total lack of service in any of the U.S. Armed Forces with his own legendary career as a top gun U.S. Navy combat pilot during the Vietnam War and his five years of incarceration and torture in a North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp.
Thursday's exchange significantly changed the dynamics of the campaign so far. It marked an important transformation and gain for McCain, who faces an uphill struggle in a time of soaring food prices, unprecedented and still rising gasoline prices -- oil hit $135 a barrel on global markets Thursday -- and a continuing unpopular war in Iraq.
Both McCain and Obama had sought to take the high road, and both of them wanted to be perceived as gentlemanly, visionary candidates. Obama, in fact, has owed his remarkable rise over the past five months almost entirely to "the vision thing" and the contrast between his intellectual, relaxed, gentlemanly style and the driven, street-fighting, stop-at-nothing popular perception of Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
But in reality, Obama is a product of the notorious and formidable Chicago Democratic political machine, and, for all his Mr. Clean image, he has never in his career shown the slightest inclination to defy it, challenge it or seek to damage it. On the contrary, it was Obama's standing as the Chicago Democratic Party's Favorite Son that allowed him to roll up the Illinois primary when Clinton was hammering him in many other major industrial states like New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Obama also revealed during the long, grinding six-week Pennsylvania primary contest that he could have thin skin and be quite easily rattled. He also displayed that vulnerability in his shoot-from-the-hip response earlier this week to President Bush's warning in Jerusalem about the dangers of appeasement, even though the president was talking in general terms and never referred to Obama once.
As long as McCain stubbornly stuck to the high road in the main presidential campaign now taking shape, none of this threatened to seriously hurt Obama. Indeed, Obama's relentless claims of insisting on a high-toned race without stinging criticisms were far from being merely high-minded: They were also an excellent strategy to try to persuade McCain to throw away his best weapons and abandon the offense.
Conservative columnists have warned the McCain campaign that sticking to his high road was a guarantee of sure defeat in November. Pat Buchanan has noted that "gentlemanly" and "moderate" Republicans such as Thomas E. Dewey, Gerald Ford, George Herbert Walker Bush and Bob Dole have all gone down to defeat.
Further, staying high-minded plays to Obama's strengths, but also exposes McCain's weaknesses. His temper, fiery nature and image of speaking plainly, sometimes offensively, but always sincerely and courageously are so well established in the American public's mind that when he muzzles himself too much, he comes across as inauthentic.
McCain's best chance to win in November from an underdog position clearly lies in the example of "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman, the incumbent but widely unpopular and even despised president, in 1948. Truman faced an opponent in Republican New York Gov. Tom Dewey, who ran a campaign as high-minded as Obama's, though without Obama's intelligence, rhetorical brilliance or charisma.
Dewey thought responding to Truman's tough shots was beneath his dignity. Truman ate him alive.
Did Obama think McCain would be so high-minded, or fearful of failing to appear a "nice guy," that he would stay silent when his support for U.S. military veterans was impugned? If he thought that, he did not know his man. In trying to score a cheap point over McCain on veterans' legislation, Obama left himself open instead to the very kind of angry counterattack from which he has most to fear.