World and Nation

Candidates Aim for a Balance Between Confident and Cocky

Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have been ever vigilant in recent days for signs of an unseemly affliction in the realm of presidential medicine: January Fever.

Both candidates have slipped a few times into the “when I’m president” construction in campaign speeches, but usually are careful to use the cautionary “if I’m president” refrain.

“If I am elected president,” McCain said at a rally here Saturday, drawing out his “if” like inviting an interruption. A flurry of “when you’re presidents!” arose from the crowd, segueing into applause and, eventually, a chant of “John McCain, John McCain.”

“If I am president,” Obama said at a rally last week in Leesburg, Va., which also triggered near-instantaneous cries of “when” from the crowd. But Obama was having none of it, or at least pretending not to have any of it (or, OK, maybe a little of it).

“No, no, no,” Obama demurred, half-heartedly motioning silence to the “whenners” with his hands. “I’m superstitious. I don’t like counting those chickens before they’re hatched.”

The whole “chickens-hatched” thing has become a recurring theme on the trail in recent days. For Obama’s campaign, the concern is that an expectation of victory — burnished by his solid lead in the polls — could make his supporters complacent on Election Day. There is also the danger that his campaign’s confidence could spill into the unseemly danger-zone of cockiness.

America does love a winner, but it most certainly does not love an early-celebrating one. Sports fan analogy: Few spectacles are more satisfying than seeing a football player strutting towards the end-zone, only to be tackled out of nowhere at the one-yard line, provoking a humiliating fumble.

As such, McCain has spent significant stump time in recent days trying to portray Obama as the political equivalent of the strutting football player. (Or, in the case of Sarah Palin, who prefers basketball metaphors, Obama is guilty of “cutting down the nets before he won the game.”)

McCain regularly mentions the “planning already under way” between Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to assume their hammerlock on the government come January. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday, McCain accused Obama of already “measuring the drapes,” of the White House, something he has charged repeatedly in recent days.

As far back as July, McCain’s campaign has been trying to pin the Premature Inauguration tag on Obama. They dismissed his summer tour of Europe and the Middle East as a “premature victory lap,” and mercilessly mocked Obama for fashioning his campaign logo into a faux-presidential seal (an experiment the Obamans quickly scuttled). For his part, McCain traveled abroad before Obama did, delivered a speech looking back on a hypothethical first term, and began giving a Saturday morning radio address, just like real live elected presidents do.