An election whose outcome was once seen as inevitable is now no better than a tossup. John McCain leads in most national polls against either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. And, as last week’s Washington Post reports, while the battle for the Democratic nomination rages on, McCain’s once-embattled campaign is methodically laying the groundwork for a massive frontal assault on the American left.

Progressives are pouring resources into defining their differences instead of their common ground. But the left can’t afford to wait until they have a nominee to begin defining the vast gulf that lies between either Democratic candidate and John McCain.

American workers know John McCain as a war hero, but they also have an image of McCain as a maverick independent who will bring change from George Bush’s policies. This image has been painstakingly nurtured over the years by McCain – in large part through his chummy relationships with an uncritical mainstream media – and it will take more than a couple of months to unravel it.

As Glenn Greenwald at Salon, (along with many others) has reported, McCain has received much less coverage for major slip-ups and gaffes – such as just recently claiming that Iran is training Al Qaeda operatives) – than either Democratic candidate has and will face.

The media can’t seem to overcome their unquestioning adoration of McCain and objectively report on the impact his policies would have on our nation and the world. But the truth about McCain is vastly different from how many Americans see him. John McCain has supported President Bush’s policies over 90% of the time. His approach to the war in Iraq and foreign policy more generally is like Bush except insofar as he is even more hawkish – just recall his “bomb bomb Iran” moment. And his approach to the issues that matter most to American workers – health care, education, job and retirement security – veers between dangerous pandering to the corporate conservative base and dangerous indifference and incomprehension, such as his insistence that the American economy is fine (in the face of 75% of the public believing we are in a recession).

That’s why the AFL-CIO (the American equivalent of the ACTU) recently launched our $54 million election campaign with a first phase called “McCain Revealed”. The American labor movement has been active every election cycle for centuries – in fact, the ACTU’s 2007 election strategy, especially its outreach to union members, was in large part an adaptation of the AFL-CIO’s tremendously successful past election programs.

But rarely have the stakes been so high, and never before have we faced a situation like this where, as one of the biggest political players outside the Democratic party, we must forge ahead and provide leadership to the rest of the progressive movement without the focus – and resources – afforded by a nominee.

Our new website has a briefing book with facts on McCain’s positions on issues that matter to working families. We are dogging McCain as he criss-crosses the country, with workers challenging him on the issues at major events from coast to coast. The first phase of our member mobilization program involves massive worksite outreach and culminates on May 17 with a national doorknocking day in which we will reach out to hundreds of thousands of union members in just a few hours.

And this year we are implementing what may well be the most sophisticated polling and targeting operation in history, to make sure our message is reaching exactly the people who need to hear it most.

The AFL-CIO represents millions of workers in America. Union households constitute almost one-quarter (25%) of all voters – and in the Midwestern working-class states that hold the keys to the electoral college, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, we represent considerably more. We will take this fight all the way up to the election, but we can’t wait until we have a nominee to start it.

Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, formerly‘s Electoral Director, is the Senior Political Strategist at the AFL-CIO.

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