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Frontline goes beyond the rhetoric

If voters still don't believe they know enough about presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain going into Wednesday's final debate, they should watch the Frontline series, "The Choice," at 9 tonight on WNED-TV or on YouTube or iTunes for free starting Wednesday.

Every four years since 1988, the exceptional Frontline series has used prominent journalists, authors, political operatives and friends to examine the biographies of the nominees and give the electorate a view that doesn't always coincide with the negative campaign ads, the talking points and the desperate smear campaign strategies.

This edition is a presidential campaign highlight that doesn't disappoint. It is best when it moves past the controversies involving the nominees and focuses on the issues and the way they have run their campaigns and dealt with people.

Obama comes across as a disciplined, surprisingly tough, coalition builder who carefully followed a two-year plan after being elected to the Senate to beat Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination despite understandable concerns about his inexperience.

McCain comes across as a determined underdog and politically savvy nominee who should never be counted out and will hold his nose whenever he is uncomfortable saying or doing something that is counter to his principles.

The McCain campaign's recent decision to use vice presidential nominee Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to attack Obama's character is reminiscent of the smears that McCain endured in the 2000 primary race with George W. Bush in South Carolina. McCain called it "wrong" then and an adviser called it "despicable" and "desperate." And it was successful.

There is no big October surprise, though some viewers may learn that McCain was so upset at the Bush tactics that he seriously considered changing parties after the 2000 election.

Viewers who have heard the McCain campaign talk about Obama's liberal record and what a risky choice he would be will learn that Obama's friendships with conservative classmates helped him make history as the first African-American to be elected president of the Law Review. He had the support of future members of the Bush administration.

Some topics that are ignored or barely mentioned may surprise viewers. William Ayers, the 1960s terrorist whom the McCain campaign has recently tried to closely link to Obama, isn't mentioned in the preview tape.

McCain's heroism as a prisoner of war is featured prominently, as is his embarrassment over being a member of the Keating Five in the 1988 savings and loan scandal. His failed first marriage is dismissed in less than a minute, as it should be.

The two-hour program also spends only a minute or so on the nominees' vice presidential choices. McCain's choice of Palin is one of several ironies in the program if you're to believe former Democratic Sen. Tom Daschle's explanation about why McCain considered leaving the Republican Party after President Bush won the 2000 election.

"He was angry for the way he was treated," said Daschle, who convinced Obama to run and is a key adviser. "He was angry because his staff [was] not asked to be part of the new administration. He was angry because he thought George Bush was playing to the most conservative elements within his own party."

McCain played to the same elements in selecting Palin. And the program suggests that McCain supported some Bush administration policies to make him more palatable to the conservatives he needed to get the 2008 nomination. It worked, but also gave the Obama campaign ammunition to paint McCain as closer to the unpopular president than he often has been.

It also is amusing to be reminded that McCain announced his candidacy on David Letterman's show, where he returns Thursday to make up with the late-night host who has been critical of McCain since he skipped a previously scheduled appearance. McCain also was once viewed as media-friendly, though his campaign is repeatedly using the GOP strategy of bashing the media.

Obama's relationship with his former minister, the controversial Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is reported extensively in a very balanced way.

The Obama campaign realized that association could be a problem when it uninvited Wright to the senator's 2007 announcement that he was running for president. However, it didn't have a plan to deal with the issue in his primary battle with Hillary Clinton. Unfortunately for the Clinton campaign, it was late to seize on it, too. Eventually, Obama condemned Wright's rhetoric and dissociated himself from him at some personal pain. The McCain campaign and conservative radio now are trying to make Ayers and Wright issues again.

In three weeks, we'll learn whether the cynical strategy that may have cost McCain the presidency eight years ago will cost him the office this time because it no longer works.


"The Choice"

9 tonight


Review: 3 1/2 stars (Out of 4)


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