- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Let the star-spangled games begin. The countdown has begun for July Fourth, historically one of the busiest days of the year for White House hopefuls, each vying to appear presidential in the classic sense - a true man of the people - strong, steady and hand over heart.

It is no time for Sen. Barack Obama to have vapors about wearing a flag pin.

It is no time for Sen. John McCain to act like an insurgent.

It is time for both to be in touch with their inner Yankee Doodles, for better or worse, as Old Glory flaps in the summer breeze and the fireworks twinkle overhead.

Gentlemen, start your engines. Just make sure they’re festooned with red, white and blue.

There’s already been one dress rehearsal. Consider that on Independence Day last year, a spate of presidential hopefuls were bumping into one another as they made the rounds at country fairs, baseball games and barbecues across the country. Picture-perfect vignettes between candidates and the locals just begged for media coverage.

In the shadow of a John Deere tractor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton talked up the locals in a tiny New Hampshire town, then tucked into an attractively pink raspberry malt at a local ice cream shop, husband Bill nearby and at the ready, clutching a matching strawberry shake. The pair bought the entire press corps ice cream as Secret Service agents lingered and cameras rolled.

Democratic Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. attended a giant barbecue in Des Moines, Iowa, while Mr. Obama made six whistle-stop appearances across Iowa, winding up his marathon Independence Day at a baseball game - although at one point he swallowed a bug, a moment recorded for all posterity by the gleeful journalists.

Among Republicans, Sen. Sam Brownback marched in not one but three parades in a trio of Iowa towns that day. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also marched in a parade several thousand miles away, only to find out that the Clintons were strutting their stuff at the same event. Mr. McCain was visiting U.S. troops in Iraq.

But such is life for the candidates on the Fourth of July.

This year, the nation is a captive audience for a genuinely historic election which perhaps has suffered from too much exposure. The campaign trail has galvanized the press for 18 months, with surveys from the Pew Research Center and other pollsters consistently revealing that the public pines for more meaningful coverage of issues and values, rather than the horse race alone.

“Some of what I like to call ‘historicity’ of this election is diminished. The sense of its singular importance gets neutralized by endless, often trite news coverage,” said Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

“I suspect, though, that the election will take on a life of its own as we move towards November and regain some of that lost historicity - no matter what kind of press we encounter,” Mr. Lichter said.

Except for the distant rumblings of Libertarian Bob Barr and independent Ralph Nader, the presidential field is now down to Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama, both poised to deliver their best rendition of a capable, can-do, all-American sort of president.

Already, both candidates have preloaded popular fare in the public marketplace. Both will be featured on the Travel Channel, for example, with dueling interviews about their “favorite Independence Day memories.” Both have published long-winded essays about patriotism in Time magazine this week.

“Patriotism means more than holding your hand over your heart during the national anthem. It means more than walking into a voting booth every two or four years and pulling a lever. Patriotism is a love and a duty, a love of country expressed in good citizenship,” Mr. McCain said.

“That is the true genius of America - a faith in simple dreams, in insistence on small miracles. It’s the idea that we can tuck in our children at night and know that they are fed and clothed and safe from harm; that we can say what we think, write what we think, without hearing a sudden knock on the door; that we can have an idea and start our own business without paying a bribe; that we can participate in the political process without fear of retribution; and that our votes will be counted. For me, it is the love and defense of these ideals that constitutes the true meaning of patriotism,” Mr. Obama observed.

Both men have their work cut out for them as each prepares to put on his best impression for July Fourth. Neither seem to display traditional core values which resonate with Americans, particularly at this time of year.

A Gallup poll of 1,625 adults released Friday found that just 40 percent of the respondents said Mr. Obama was a “strong and decisive leader;” 46 percent thought the same about Mr. McCain. Asked whether the candidates were “honest and trustworthy,” 39 percent felt that about Mr. Obama, 35 percent about Mr. McCain. Less than half the respondents were convinced that either candidate had a clear plan for solving the nation’s problems, could manage the government effectively or could unify the parties.

The poll was conducted June 15-19 and has a margin of error of three percentage points.

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