AND NOW, THE REAL CAMPAIGN BEGINS
WITH CONVENTIONS COMING UP & THE ELECTION JUST MONTHS AWAY, THERE'S LOTS TO DO
WASHINGTON - While many people will work on their tans this summer, or on summer reading lists or on not working too hard, two exceptions - John McCain and Barack Obama - and their underlings will be working.
Working industriously on an election that only one can win.
With 11 weeks to the start of the Democratic convention - and the GOP event just days later - Republican McCain and Democrat Obama will be focused on strategy, fundraising, shoring up weak spots and exploiting opportunities to prepare themselves for the sprint to Nov. 4.
Here's what they'll be worrying about:
Shrinking the electoral map
From now on, the great majority of Americans can be excused if they barely realize a presidential election is under way. They will see virtually no TV ads, visits by candidates or local news coverage.
That's because this campaign, like the last two, will focus on about 15 competitive states. Both parties see the other states as reliably in their camps and not needing attention, or totally out of reach and not worth the effort and expense of trying to win them. In either case, these states will largely be ignored.
McCain will start by trying to hold the 31 states President Bush won in 2004 (which are almost identical to the 30 he won in 2000). If he succeeds, he will be president.
Obama must claim one or more of those states, while losing few if any of the ones Al Gore and John Kerry won in their narrow losses to Bush.
The magic number is 18. That's how many electoral votes Obama must add to Kerry's 252, from four years ago, to secure the presidency. For example, if Obama carries Iowa (seven electoral votes) and Missouri (11) without losing any Kerry states, he would become president.
Other states Obama will target as possible pickups are Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and at least one - Virginia - not normally within the Democrats' reach.
He must play defense elsewhere in hopes of keeping McCain from snatching Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Oregon, New Hampshire and possibly Maine, all of which Kerry won.
One possible scenario would be excruciating for McCain. If he carried every state Bush won in 2004 except Nevada, New Mexico and Iowa - a plausible outcome - then he and Obama would each have 269 electoral votes. The House of Representatives would break the tie, with each state delegation having one vote. Democrats control more state delegations than Republicans, so Obama almost surely would be named president.
Choosing a running mate
Analysts question whether a vice-presidential choice seriously affects a presidential election, but Obama calls it the most important decision he will make before Election Day. He and McCain have appointed small groups to vet contenders and, if nothing else, the process will fascinate the political chattering class for a while.
Obama first must decide whether to tap Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who battled him to the end and has legions of fans who want her on the ticket. Many political insiders think he will turn elsewhere, but they do not agree on a front-runner.
Possibilities include four vanquished presidential rivals (besides Clinton): New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut. Former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia is often mentioned, as are two prominent female supporters of Obama: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
Less conventional choices for Obama would be Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, or a prominent Clinton supporter, such as Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana. Virginia alone (a GOP-leaning state Obama would love to win) has three possible running mates: Gov. Tim Kaine, Sen. Jim Webb and former Gov. Mark Warner, who is running for the Senate.
McCain is likely to look at Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Charlie Crist of Florida, two battleground states. Other possibilities include former Massachusetts governor and presidential rival Mitt Romney, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former congressman and White House budget director Rob Portman of Ohio, another key state.
A private-sector choice might be Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard.
Defining your opponent
before he defines you
Campaign pollsters say that the average person still knows relatively little about Obama or McCain. Both men and their allies will race to fill in the blanks with appealing portraits of themselves and unflattering pictures of the other.
Obama's theme is "change," and he constantly says that McCain would carry out "a third term" of President Bush, whose approval ratings approach historic lows. McCain portrays Obama as inexperienced, naive and more talk than action.
Youth and age will be a key subtext. Obama does not directly allude to McCain's age, which will hit 72 on the eve of the GOP convention. But their age difference, 25 years, is the largest in history for major party nominees. Obama must show he's mature and ready; McCain must show that he's sharp and vigorous.
Both campaigns are adding staff. Obama's team will focus on introducing the first-term senator to voters who may not know much about his biography, while today he begins a two-week economic tour of the country.
Obama has assembled an unprecedented political-fundraising machine, raking in $264 million in 16 months. McCain has raised $115 million in 17 months. McCain, assured of his eventual nomination, had his best fundraising month in May, raising $21.5 million. Obama, reeling from controversies over his former pastor and still battling Clinton, raised nearly $32 million in April.
Obama should manage to continue this extraordinary accumulation of cash. McCain is improving as he works with the Republican National Committee to expand his donor base.
The Democrats' challenge is to build the party's finances. The RNC, now operating with McCain strategists in place, raised nearly $24 million in May and had $53.6 million on hand at the beginning of June.
The Democratic National Committee raised nearly $5 million in May and ended the month with $4 million in the bank.
Obama is putting his stamp on the DNC, and has installed a top strategist to oversee general election operations. Separately, yesterday, Obama named Matthew Nugen, his campaign's political director, to oversee operations for the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August.
McCain is preparing to accept about $85 million in public financing. But he needs approval from the Federal Election Commission, which cannot act until the Senate confirms nominees required for a quorum.
Obama is expected to turn down the hefty check and rely on private donors to finance his run. *