WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama seems to think that the world of politics would be better if someone like John McCain were running for the White House.
The Democratic incumbent and his re-election advisers are waxing nostalgic about the Republican senator from Arizona who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential race. They're embracing McCain as a reasonable voice on climate change and immigration, someone who took on extremism in his own party.
It's all a way of drawing a contrast with Obama's current GOP rival, Mitt Romney, and trying to convince crucial independent voters that the former Massachusetts governor is outside the mainstream.
But Obama's flattering memories of McCain conflict with their campaign clashes of 2008. Back then, Obama hammered his rival as "out of touch" with many of the problems facing people in the United States.
Today's platitudes also conceal the reality of Obama's current dynamic with McCain. The senator is one of the president's staunchest critics on everything from health care to foreign policy, and he's a vocal Romney supporter.
To hear Obama tell it now, the McCain who ran against him in 2008 was an example of a principled Republican who knew how to reach across the aisle. The implication from Obama is that those qualities simply don't apply to Romney.
"John McCain believed in climate change," Obama told supporters at a fundraiser in Minneapolis Friday. "John believed in campaign finance reform. He believed in immigration reform. I mean, there were some areas where you saw some overlap. In this election, the Republican Party has moved in a fundamentally different direction."
Obama's take on McCain has become a standard part of his fundraising appeal to donors. As the general election heats up, the Obama campaign is relishing more opportunities to try to turn its former foe into an asset.
When Romney didn't condemn his supporter Donald Trump for raising more questions this week about the president's citizenship, the Obama campaign dug up old video clips of McCain correcting supporters in the 2008 who said they were scared of Obama and one clip of a supporter who thought he was an "Arab."
"As the Republican nominee, John McCain stood up to the voices of extremism in his party," an Obama Internet video says. It then asks why Romney won't do the same.
The 90-second video ends with words on the screen that read: "McCain and Romney: Two Republican nominees, only one willing to lead."
Brian Rogers, a spokesman for McCain, said Friday that if McCain and Obama "share so many priorities and are in such agreement, why didn't the president or his staff ever reach out to Sen. McCain to work on them?"
Not surprisingly, veterans of the 2008 campaign are split down party lines over whether the 2012 Obama campaign's strategic embrace of its former rival makes sense.
"They're not announcing that they're embracing all of (McCain's) positions on issues," said Jennifer Psaki, a former Obama White House official who also worked on the president's 2008 campaign. "But they are highlighting the standards that John McCain held himself to that Mitt Romney has not."
Steve Schmidt, a senior strategist to McCain's 2008 campaign, said voters will see through the Obama team's attempts to use the former GOP nominee to paint the party's current standard-bearer as an extremist.
"It's very difficult to make the case that Mitt Romney is a right-wing nut, particularly because a lot of real right-wing nuts have spent a lot of time saying Romney's not one of them," Schmidt said.
Like Romney, McCain faced criticism from Democrats in 2008 who said the independent-minded senator had kowtowed to the conservative wing of the party in order to claim the GOP nomination.
The nearly four years since Obama and McCain's electoral face-off have been filled with interactions that the president probably won't be bringing up at campaign fundraisers or using in a campaign video.
In a meeting during the 2010 health care debate, McCain criticized how Democrats were constructing the legislation. Obama cut him off, saying "We're not campaigning anymore. The election is over."
McCain responded: "I'm reminded of that every day."
McCain has characterized Obama as often being too passive on foreign policy, and in recent days, said it was "embarrassing" that the United States wasn't doing more to stop the bloodshed in Syria.
The Obama and McCain conflicts aside, Schmidt said he's not surprised to see his former boss back in the electoral mix: "The last guy is never more popular than after there's a new guy."
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