Thursday, September 18, 2008

McCain-Palin Peak, Obama-Biden Climb: Why This Week Is The Game Changer

The feeling grows that John McCain is not fully in control of himself. That his party animal past and legendary inflexibility may be catching up to him. That he doesn't have the mental agility to stay sharp, let alone face down Barack Obama.

McCain seems unsteady without Sarah Palin at his side and is drawing smaller crowds now that he is out on his own. Meanwhile, the post-convention bounce and Palin boomlet have ended with a thud and the Alaska governor's negatives are intersecting with her positives in public-opinion polls.

While Palin's selection as a running mate was brilliant for its element of surprise, it is likely to go down in political history as an extraordinarily short-sighted move that dragged McCain down, not pulled him up.

Palin has had the unintended effect of making McCain seem ever more the unsteady septuagenarian, is not drawing in disaffected Democratic women in appreciable numbers because of her starkly unfeminist views, her superficiality is apparent in her scripted, cue-card assisted appearances, and the most damning criticism of her has come not from the opposition but McCain surrogate Carly Fiorina, who like "Foreclosure Phil" Gramm has now been thrown under the campaign bus.

Meanwhile, the drip-drip-drip of negative news concerning Palin from Alaska will dog and distract the ticket from here on out, while the record reveals that her reputation as a housecleaner as small-town mayor and governor is trumped by her penchant for appointing unqualified friends. Case in point: The high school classmate whom she named as Alaska's agriculture secretary who cites her childhood love of cows as a qualification.

The McCain campaign's strategy of mud slinging and serial lying -- and lying about lying -- has had legs, but it has become a story in and of itself and there is now a small army of commentators, including many from the right-of-center, who rue the once principled war horse's descent into sleaze, another issue that will dog and distract the ticket.

Worse yet, developments on Wall Street have exposed McCain at his most inept. His initial response -- to channel Herbert Hoover and declare that the economy is fundamentally sound -- was widely derided. His revised response was plan scary. And both are political manna for Obama.

There is an opportunity for the Democrat to hammer home the obvious: The economic crisis is a direct result of Republican deregulation efforts led by Gramm, McCain's erstwhile economic adviser, and enthusiastically endorsed by the candidate himself, whose political career was resurrected after the Keating Five scandal because people believed his vow that he was swearing off lobbyists and going straight. That was smoke and mirrors, of course, and McCain is a poster boy if ever there was one for coddling the rich and shortchanging the middle class and poor.

Obama has a terrific opportunity to pitch his own economic plan to the blue-collar voters who remain on the fence. He has failed to do so up to now not because his plan isn't aces, but because he has not made the case that he can sit at the kitchen table with ordinary Americans.

His selection of Joe Biden as a running mate keeps looking smarter and smarter. The Delaware senator's policy-specific speeches are getting more airplay nationally -- and lots of airplay in the swing states where he is campaigning -- which is having the effort of making Palin seem ever more a pom-pom girl and not someone you would want to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

With most polls showing McCain and Obama tied and some showing Obama with a lead, the debates should give the Democratic ticket a further lift. If there is a danger here, it is that Biden will have to be careful to not appear to be beating up on Palin; Obama should have no such compunction and needs to light McCain's notoriously short fuse.

There is nothing that McCain can say or do to jump start his sagging fortunes. He can't try to squeeze back into his McMaverick super hero outfit because it no longer fits. He can hope that there is an awful development overseas that will enable him to flex his national-security muscles. And that his whiteness will be a decisive factor.

This week is the game changer and the election is now Obama's to lose. He has found his mojo just as the news media has seemed to find its own in the wake of McCain's "lipstick on a pig" backfire.

Obama can outspend McCain. His campaign's ground game is superior. Still, he is capable of blowing it. And he needs to sharpen his TV ads, which overall still do not impress, while continuing to dial up the rhetoric, focusing his aim on McCain as Bush 44 while studiously ignoring Palin.

The McCain-Palin and Obama-Biden tickets are extraordinary studies in contrast. But even that pales in comparison to what they represent -- standing still or going backwards versus moving ahead at such a critical juncture.

Only the rich, the ultra conservative and the brain dead have thrived in the Age of Bush. For others, the last eight years have been an epiphany of pain. But for some of those voters change is a scary concept and well-practiced Republican fear mongering still resonates. What the most important presidential election in seven decades may come down to is whether more Americans are willing to bet on the promise of the future and not remain stuck in the disasters of the past.

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