ST LOUIS -- I haven't been to the circus in a while, but this election year has provided me with top flight seats from which to view political high-wire acts.
Some have come as a surprise. Here in Missouri -- the birthplace of trapeze artists like Rush Limbaugh as well as genteel balance-beam walkers like former Sen. John Danforth -- this was supposed to be a largely unremarkable election year. No longer considered within reach for President Obama, the Show Me State still provided an opportunity for incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill to assemble a center-left coalition strong enough to keep a little-known conservative challenger at bay.
That was before said challenger, Republican Rep. Todd Akin, appeared to single-handedly blow up his campaign by suggesting that women who are raped can't get pregnant. Akin said, "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try and shut that whole thing down."
But instead of meeting popular expectation, Akin stayed in the race. Religious conservatives rallied around his antiabortion message. McCaskill's lead expanded, then shrunk. Now, Democrats in this state are telling me they fear that Akin may win anyway. Republicans are worried, too, that they blew him off too soon and they may need him to regain a Senate majority. Now, that's a tightrope.
In Massachusetts, Republican Sen. Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren are dueling it out on their own high wire. Brown staffers performed a little tomahawk chop (!) at a rally this week to reinforce the claim that Warren had misrepresented herself as Native American to advance her career. Warren denies it and accuses Brown of attacking her family. Brown denounced the actions of his staff. The wire is high and shaky.
At the White House and at the United Nations, the trapeze act has been more dangerous. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hauled out a crudely drawn cartoon of a bomb to illustrate the red line that he argues should be drawn to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. It did nothing to improve his relationship with the Obama administration, which has scolded Iran, but drawn no real line.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was uncharacteristically forced on the defensive as she tried to prove that the State Department took the correct precautions at its consulate in Benghazi, Libya, before its ambassador and three other Americans were killed. Was it anger over an anti-Islam video? Was it a Qaida-inspired terrorist attack? U.S. officials have said that both are true. There is nothing but air under their feet.
Then there is the electoral map. The path to 270 is the lion that must be tamed. So many opinion polls have come out that put Romney at a disadvantage that we are reverting to other ways of measuring the race.
Even if you don't believe that the former Massachusetts governor is 10 points down in Ohio, no one is arguing that he is ahead. The same goes for Florida and Virginia.
But Romney's advisers are quickly tiring of the drumbeat. Are enough Republicans being polled they ask? Are the surveys being correctly weighted? Let's put the answer this way: The candidate in the lead never questions the polls.
But the Electoral College map is a tough argument to tame. Ohio. Florida. Virginia. The winner needs one, if not all, of those states. If you want to know which candidate is facing the toughest challenge right now, less than six weeks out, listen to who's growling the loudest.
And if you are thinking that I've overreached on the metaphor and left the impression that politics and policy looks more and more like a three ring circus? Well, I can't argue with you.