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The American Debate: WHAT WILL IT TAKE?

Now that Barack Obama has all but clinched the nomination, campaigning can begin in earnest. But to fight at top form, he and John McCain would do well to follow a few tips.

So the battle is finally joined. Without further ado, here are some utilitarian tips for Barack Obama and John McCain, offered in the spirit of helping each reach full potential.

Five things Obama needs to do:

Tell his American story. A lot of people, particularly those who tune into politics only at the eleventh hour, still think this guy is just a Muslim (wrong) with a funny name who hails from the Ivy League. Obama needs to stress his rags-to-riches narrative, his childhood stint on food stamps, his inspirational grandma, and the paternal kin who fought in World War II. Low-information voters help swing national elections; Obama needs to make them more comfortable. Which means he should . . .

Wave the flag. He can't outduel a guy who got his arms broken in a POW prison cell, but he needs to put his own spin on what it means to be a patriot. He needs to flesh out what he has said already: Those who seek to repair America's flaws are motivated by love of country. As he said in a speech last winter, "Loving your country shouldn't just mean watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. Loving your country must mean accepting your responsibility to do your part to change it." Liberals sometimes get queasy about flag-waving, but Obama wouldn't be aiming this message at liberals.

Bond with working-class whites. He doesn't necessarily need to win this Hillary Clinton constituency; no Democratic candidate has won a majority of working-class whites since 1964. If Obama can minimize his losses with these voters, he can win in November; it's worth noting that Al Gore in 2000 lost working-class whites by 17 percentage points and won the popular vote anyway. Obama needs to deliver fewer pretty speeches and demonstrate that he understands their lives (assuming he can exude the requisite empathy) and can talk in practical terms about their kitchen-table concerns. Which means he should . . .

Paint McCain as Bush Redux. Economic anxiety is rampant; Bush is now the most unpopular president in the history of the Gallup poll; and McCain's big economic idea is to cut corporate taxes and make permanent Bush's tax cuts for the most-affluent Americans. Plus, McCain insists he'll balance the budget by the end of his first term. Obama needs to ask McCain which domestic programs he would slash to make it all happen. He needs to convince swing voters that, at a time when the Republican brand is badly damaged, McCain is just another orthodox Republican (and a 27-year Washington careerist besides), not the independent-minded maverick he claims to be.

Talk about the Supreme Court. To woo disgruntled Hillary women, millions of whom are suburban liberals, Obama needs to stress that a President McCain might well nominate the judge who would finally tip the scales against Roe v. Wade - and tilt the court even more rightward for the next generation. In typical presidential campaigns, Republicans always make the court an issue; Democrats, far less so. But this is an atypical year, just in having a black Democratic nominee who needs the votes of white Democratic women. Obama needs to portray McCain as the prime threat to their policy interests.

As for McCain:

Preach the virtues of divided government. Since the Democrats are a cinch to retain or expand their control over the House and Senate, he needs to sell himself as the guy who'd check and balance their excesses. Independent swing voters, who are wary of one-party rule and who tend to like McCain anyway, might warm to that pitch. McCain needs to run against the Democratic Congress (giving him an "outsider" argument) and suggest that Obama, with his liberal Senate voting record, would conspire with lawmakers to provide (in McCain's current words) "the wrong kind of change."

Talk constantly about Iraq. On paper, it's supposed to be McCain's weakness (he was uttering rosy predictions long before the war began), but polls show that Americans, even while opposing the war, favor McCain slightly over Obama to handle it best. A war hero with two decades of experience clearly gets more creds than a guy only four years removed from the Illinois legislature. McCain needs to exploit this edge; for instance, he needs to keep reminding swing voters he was an early supporter of the "surge" - which has improved conditions militarily - at a time when Obama went on record as a pessimist (CBS, Jan. 14, 2007).

As for Iran, McCain's efforts to paint Obama as weak have already yielded dividends - because Obama has changed his tune. Whereas he said last year he'd meet Iranian leaders without preconditions, he insisted Wednesday he would meet them "at a time and place of my choosing, if and only if it can advance the interest of the United States."

Hire a speech coach. Fast. Readers with insomnia should go online and call up McCain's Tuesday night speech from Louisiana. As a sleep aid, it's swifter than Ambien. The TV contrast between McCain and Obama was embarrassing. McCain needs to get at least marginally better if he expects to move a nation. He has smartly invited Obama to join him in a series of town-hall meetings. McCain is far more effective in conversational forums than on a podium. Obama would do him a big favor by saying yes.

Push the maverick theme. McCain can't draw independents - and perhaps grab a crucial share of the Hillary women - unless he sells himself as the antithesis of a Bush Republican. He needs to stress his occasional departures from GOP orthodoxy (his concern for global warming, his support for path-to-citizenship immigration reform), and advertise himself as a fighter for the underdog (he has already railed against drug companies and golden-parachute CEOs). He needs to pound these themes, if only to mask the fact that, according to Congressional Quarterly, he voted the Bush position on Senate bills 95 percent of the time in 2007 and 100 percent of the time so far in 2008.

Ohio, Ohio, Ohio. McCain needs to pour disproportionate resources into the Buckeye bailiwick - traditionally the most Republican of the Rust Belt states, although it has been trending blue at the state level. The winner in '08 may well be the guy who takes two of three among Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. McCain looks stronger in Florida, and Obama should win Pennsylvania (which has gone blue in four straight elections). That makes Ohio the potentially pivotal state - as it was in 2004. And McCain might want to ponder this factoid: No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio.

I'm scratching the surface, of course. Both candidates need to stop making factual errors (memo to McCain: the Sunnis and the Shiites are different; memo to Obama: your uncle didn't liberate Auschwitz). Both need to pick good running mates. Both must make clear that no more loony pastors will be tolerated.

And if they both perform at their best, perhaps we can look forward to a cliff-hanger Election Night. Assuming our nerves can handle it.