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By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 8/2/2008 6:52:04 PM ET 2008-08-02T22:52:04

The hardest thing to do in politics is campaign as someone you aren't.

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People can spot an imposter from a mile away.

The most successful politicians are the ones who embrace their best traits while turning their liabilities into loveable attributes.

And yet, many a candidate tries to run as something they aren't simply because the strategy dictates it. And when even a good strategy doesn't match the candidate, the result can be a disjointed campaign that produces a lot of uncomfortable moments.

Unless, somehow, the candidate figures out how to embrace the strategy.

Are we seeing this happen right now to John McCain?

If you were to diagnose the best way to go at Obama in the midst of this disastrous Republican environment, you might come up with the tactics the McCain brain trust unveiled this week: Paint Obama as a bit full of himself, over-confident, elitest and out of touch.

There are a number of ways to paint that picture, including attacking Obama for his celebrity. America has a love-hate relationship with celebrity. We love to follow celebrities but we also love to mock them. And secretly we believe we're better than they are.

Making light of Obama's pop icon status and trying to use it as a way to undermine his serious presidential credentials is a good one. The latest McCain ad did just that. We may love U2 and we may love Bono's humanitarian efforts, but do voters in Youngstown want him as president?

But the flaw in this attack from McCain is that it doesn't fit who he is. This is a guy who hangs out with Warren Beatty. This is a guy who is married to a wealthy beer heiress. This is a guy whose senior adviser was Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign manager. This is a guy who owes much of his success in national politics to marketing himself as a political celebrity.

And attacking Obama’s celebrity is just one part of the playbook. There are two more plays: attacking his experience and attacking his common touch.

Our own NBC-WSJ poll indicates Obama's biggest trouble spots are experience and whether he represents our values, however that is defined.

Candidate Brain TrustsMcCain may not have the contrasts necessary to take advantage of these Obama's weaknesses. And perhaps the best strategy to take Obama on isn’t one that fits McCain comfortably.

For instance, one of the best ways to illuminate the experience issue is to take it to the next level when debating policy proposals. Hillary Clinton got some traction against Obama when she was able to do exactly this during the second half of the primary campaign.

Clinton’s most impressive trait has always been her ability to get into the weeds on just about any issue. When she demonstrated her detailed knowledge of an issue, it helped drive the notion that she was all about substance and experience and Obama was all about fluff and inexperience.

McCain is not exactly a details guy. He is a candidate who admits the economy isn’t his best subject. And he regularly speaks in generalities… just like Obama. It is why our latest NBC-WSJ poll indicated the country doesn’t have a lot of confidence in either candidate to solve the country’s economic problems. Plus it doesn’t help McCain that a recent Politico report indicated his policy proposals had far fewer details than those provided by Obama’s campaign.

Video: Four regions where candidates will fight hardest Then there’s the common touch issue – something Obama has struggled with. While he’s terrific in a big crowd and seems to feed off the emotion of a large rally, he’s not as nimble or as approachable when he’s in a smaller format. I’ve always been surprised by his awkwardness in this campaign – when I see his inability to touch a shoulder or put an arm around someone when they’ve asked a personal or emotionally-charged question. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were masters of the common touch.

Not only is this not Obama, it’s not McCain either. He’s not a “feel your pain” guy or a “compassionate conservative” politician. This is not to say that either he or Obama don’t feel voter pain or don’t have compassion. It is simply that neither one of them comes across as touchy-feely politicians.

Both men appear to be trying to relate to people via hero-worship. This works only if voters believe the candidate is someone to look up to.

Presidents seem to fall into two positive categories: they’re one of us, or they’re heroes. Both McCain and Obama probably see themselves as potential heroes –

presidents who will be looked up to, not presidents everyday people will remark are “just like me.”

This brings us back to the strategic struggle facing the McCain campaign.

The best way to go after Obama is to make his celebrity seem like fluff, to underscore his inexperience, and to make him seem out of touch.

These negatives don’t match McCain’s strengths. They match his weaknesses.

McCain, no doubt, is bothered by the fact that his strengths are being overshadowed by Obama’s similar strengths. That is probably motivating him to stick with his negative strategy.

Conventional wisdom assumes John McCain is the only Republican who could hold up this well in this environment.

But when the history of this campaign is written, we might speculate on two scenarios: How would Clinton have stood against McCain, and how would Mitt Romney (or someone like Jeb Bush, only with a different last name) have stood against Obama? Will the pundits say McCain was the best candidate to prevent a landslide but not the best candidate to provide the necessary contrast to topple Obama?

The McCain campaign has found a good way to begin undermining Obama's credentials to be president and to try to turn his strengths into weaknesses.

The problem is that McCain isn't comfortable running this campaign. You can tell by the tenor of his own defense of his tactics.

Perhaps McCain can put blinders on to keep this line of attack up on Obama and then also start getting himself prepped like crazy to go deeper into issues in a way that exposes Obama’s inexperience come debate time.

But it’s not the candidate McCain is most comfortable being. It’s going to be fascinating to see how McCain holds up running as a candidate rebuilt by a necessary strategy rather than as a candidate whose strengths dictate the strategy.

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