WASHINGTON - Far from waiting in his corner as the Democratic candidates brawl, Republican White House hopeful John McCain has come out fighting to shape a general election bout that is still months away.
The Arizona senator has long been anticipating a November matchup with Barack Obama as the Illinois senator looks soon to eliminate Hillary Clinton from the Democratic race and take the fight back to the Republicans.
For weeks, McCain has largely omitted all mention of the former first lady as he strives to portray Obama as inexperienced, naive and a dangerous bet for US national security.
"The general election campaign has already begun," commented Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Study.
"In each of the last two presidential elections, early attempts to define the Democratic candidate were a critical factor in Republican success, and McCain is trying to do it again," the political scientist told AFP.
Obama in turn says his likely general election foe offers only four more years of President George W. Bush's "failure" in Iraq, on jobs and on health care.
"As the presumptive nominee of his party, John McCain has had a three-month head-start to build his campaign," the Obama campaign said Thursday in a fundraising appeal that had its sights firmly on the general election campaign.
The Republican effectively wrapped up his own party's nomination in early March when former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, his last serious challenger, dropped out of the race.
During May, as Obama built up a seemingly impregnable lead over Clinton, the Vietnam War hero's tone in his verbal sparring with the Illinois senator turned razor-sharp.
McCain's invective was bitterly personal after the Democrat, from the Senate floor, attacked his opposition to a bill designed to increase benefits for military veterans.
"I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," the Republican said.
The two White House hopefuls have been trading acidic barbs over the Iraq war, and over Obama's plans for high-level engagement with US foes such as Iran and Syria.
The Democrat's response has been tart as he aims to taint McCain by association with Bush, whose popularity ratings are at record lows with four out of five Americans believing their country is on the wrong course.
After Bush and McCain held a private fundraising event, the Obama camp said: "John McCain can run from the cameras, but he can't hide from the fact that he's aiming to continue George Bush's policies for a disastrous third term."
For all the talk of Democratic disunity between Clinton and Obama supporters, the Illinois senator may have benefited in some ways from the length and ardor of the primary campaign heading in to Tuesday's climax.
Analysts say Obama has already built up an effective national organization of fired-up volunteers and donors after going toe to toe with the former first lady from coast to coast for nearly six months.
"McCain, meanwhile, is still formulating his general-election pitch and struggling to build his core team," Time magazine said in an article headlined "Team McCain: Ready for Prime Time?"
Like a similar New York Times story last week, Time said McCain has been dogged by staff upheavals and his national organization lags far behind Bush's at this stage of 2004.
But in his favored format of up-close meetings with voters, the Republican remains an effective brawler who argues that Obama is, at 46, a political lightweight.
"For a young man with very little experience, he's done very well," McCain, 71, sarcastically told supporters in California on May 22.
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