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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Are We Due For Another Momentum Shift?

McCain Has Turned The Campaign Narrative Around, But There's Plenty Of Time For It To Change Again

September 16, 2008

It has been almost two weeks since the conclusion of the Republican National Convention. It's now clear that while Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois got a bounce out of the Democratic gathering in Denver, Sen. John McCain of Arizona -- or maybe I should say his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- got a bigger one out of the GOP event in St. Paul, Minn.

Polls seem to show that the bounces have settled to a point where the race is very close. Partisans are galvanized on both sides, with a narrow slice of largely independent undecided voters in the middle.

While Obama led in the polls through the summer, events that occurred and circumstances that developed unquestionably worked against him and in favor of McCain.

 

The question now is, what's next? This is an obviously subjective judgment, but there seems to be a tonal shift in the national conversation over the last few days compared to early last week.

The first matter that played to McCain was the Russian invasion of Georgia. It grabbed the spotlight and shifted the focus of Americans midsummer. It also put a premium on McCain's strong suit -- national security -- and away from Obama's more domestic focus.

Then, when gasoline prices soared, leaving many drivers up in arms, the Democratic party line on offshore drilling came into focus, further robbing Democrats of the momentum that they had in the spring.

Consumers seemed to want to do everything to develop new energy sources, and blocking a vote on drilling was no longer politically palatable. It took a while before House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders turned the corner on this issue, and it was a costly misstep.

Next came the Democratic convention, which was the political equivalent of a Chinese dinner. It looked, smelled and tasted great; it was a perfectly enjoyable experience -- and diners were hungry just a few hours later.

As well organized and impressive as the Denver convention was, it's pretty clear that viewers knew little more about Obama on the Friday after the convention than they did on the Monday morning before it began. The ball was not advanced.

The choice of Palin capped the summer of McCain's resurgence, effectively turning the race from change versus the status quo to two competing visions of change, a necessity if McCain is to win.

Conservatives who have never been enthusiastic about McCain might get energized over Palin. Suddenly, McCain was back on top and Republicans had a bit of a spring in their steps.

The question now is, what's next? This is an obviously subjective judgment, but there seems to be a tonal shift in the national conversation over the last few days compared to early last week.

Regarding Palin, there has been a shift from surprise and novelty to a much closer and more critical scrutiny than she received during the pre-pick vetting. A legitimate question is whether portrayals of Palin as a petty and vindictive elective official who fattens up the public payroll with old schoolmates and makes questionable policy decisions is permeating the public consciousness.

We might read the New York Times and Washington Post, but local news outlets might not be dwelling on these things. As the campaign progresses, it would seem to be inevitable that Palin will have to be more available to the press and answer more questions.

That will likely happen at a time when the questions will be more pointed and more focused on the items that have been discovered as news organizations and Democratic opposition researchers comb her record.

But it's also true that McCain, who historically has been treated by the press better than most Republican presidential contenders, is now incurring the full wrath of a press corps that has decided that he has crossed the line, with ads and statements that do even greater violence to truth and fairness than is the norm.

It is a tone that some say has left McCain abandoning the "straight talk" ideals that made him such an attractive candidate in 2000.

No matter if what McCain and his campaign is saying and communicating is the truth or not, and whether or not he is abandoning his straight talk ideals. This will make it very difficult for them to get a message across, and the media refs are not likely to give him the benefit of the doubt on close calls.

But now the collapse of venerable financial institutions might well dominate public attention in mid-September. While relatively few are immediately affected by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the fire sale of Merrill Lynch to Bank of America, the reverberations that such economic calamities cause are likely coming soon.

In addition, consumer confidence is further eroded, buyers are spooked, business expansion and increased hiring decisions are shelved, and the cycle continues its spiral downward.

While managing the economy is not exactly Obama's strong suit, it does pull the focus even further away from national security, McCain's strength. It would seem a better bet that this jump ball would be more likely go toward the team that hasn't been in power, and the edge would go to Obama.

There is no question that this election is still very much up in the air. The question is whether there is another momentum change in the making.

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