By Monday next week, all eyes will be turned to Denver and the Russian roulette convention that the Clintons have now forced on Team Obama. The GOP presidential nominating meeting starts the following Monday. So this is the last week of the long primary and post-primary season before the traditional campaign begins. How does the race for the White House look today?
Going into this past weekend, the candidates were effectively tied. Whether you rely on the Real Clear Politics average of polls or the Rasmussen or Gallup daily trackings, what only a couple of months ago looked like an Obama walk-away is now a margin-of-error match-up.
How the candidates come out of this weekend is another matter. The nationally televised Showdown at Saddleback — one of the most intelligent and civilized presidential candidate events ever staged (ever, as in as far back as 1788) – turned out to be an almost no-contest McCain win. The Arizona senator came off as direct and detailed in his answers, confident and commanding in his presence and in sync with his audience. In contrast, though ever the elegant presenter, Barak Obama seemed to slip from his famous eloquence into what sounded more like a loquacious evasiveness. The worst moment came when he sidestepped the question of when life begins – a question at the heart of the life v. abortion debate – saying it was above his pay grade. He is running for president of the United States. There is no higher pay grade.
As we all know, McCain faces two big political tasks – energizing skeptical GOP voters while winning over Independents. The mainstream media has portrayed this as a combining of incompatibles. Saturday’s forum showed why it might not prove such a conundrum. In forcefully championing lower taxes, less federal spending, global trade, life and an unapologetic enthusiasm for America as humanity’s last best hope, he reminded former GOP voters and current lukewarm supporters of why they have so often backed the Republican project. For a faltering economy that is and can only be driven by entrepreneurship and global trade and for a world facing threats ranging from al Qaeda terrorism to Russian troop movements, he came off as the right candidate for the present danger.
But whether or not the polls open up in McCain’s favor this coming week, Obama has three big moves yet to make on the political chessboard.
The first is his pick of a running mate. Last week, I suggested former Michigan governor John Engler as a match for McCain. This sparked a vigorous online debate, much of it regarding former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. To me, both Romney and Engler would help McCain achieve what I see as essential strategic goals – flip Michigan to the GOP column, give the ticket an experienced voice on economic issues, and energize voters who are truly concerned about the family values agenda.
Obama’s V.P. choice could move the race even more. For example, imagine if the Illinois senator were to pick as his running mate Florida senator Bill Nelson. How can GOP win this year without Florida, which polls show tied? With Nelson on the ticket, Republicans would have to throw huge dollars into holding the must-win state. The point here is that Obama’s choice could have more impact on this close campaign than anyone has yet imagined. A running mate from Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico or any of several other states could change the contest’s dynamics.
Obama’s second big potential chess move is ethnicity – race. Ethnicity is almost certainly a net plus for his candidacy. It insures record turnout in the nation’s most heavily Democratic minority group. It also pulls to Obama upscale suburban independents who see him as a vehicle for putting racial divisions permanently behind the country. If on economics and national security grounds that groups starts to stray, subtle reminders of this aspiration can pull them back.
Finally, Obama has money – far, far more than McCain will have. And he hasn’t even begun to unleash it. The real spending will probably start right after Labor Day. And the McCain campaign will need to show even more cleverness than they have to date to make up for the gap in dollars.
So as the campaign stands today, McCain has scored big points on issues. But Obama holds in reserve big resources, including big money, that McCain can’t match. In a year that should favor the Democrats hands down, the polls have the contest tied. Let the contest begin.