A look down the backstretch

As the month of September draws to a close, it looks like Barack Obama is leading John McCain by approximately 5 percentage points. A 5 point lead is hardly insurmountable, but at this stage of the race, with the conventions and the first debate in the book, it’s fair to ask: what foreseable events might cause McCain to rally?

The remaining debates are the main events of the next few weeks. It’s difficult to see McCain debating much better than he did in the first match-up and, since foreign policy will feature less prominently going forward, it’s easy to see him doing worse. Inasmuch as the first debate seems to have helped Obama slightly, there’s little room for optimism on this front, though a major Obama gaffe is possible.

Then there’s Sarah Palin’s debate with Joe Biden. In my opinion, Palin has not distinguished herself when discussing policy issues in an interview setting. Unless she steps it up considerably, we could be in for a long night.

Some conservative commentators see several factors weighing in Palin’s favor — low expectations, sympathy, and Joe Biden. But given the perceived state of the country (only 11 percent of the public thinks we’re headed in the right direction), I doubt that voters will tolerate a candidate for vice president who fails to display a reasonable command of the issues. And, while it’s quite possible that Biden will be off-putting, my guess is that voters will be less put-off by verbosity and pomposity than by a failure to sound knowledgeable.

Perhaps Palin will perform well. If she does, it should help McCain, but not substantially — the public expects a presidential candidate to nominate a knowledgeable, articulate running mate. If Palin fails to measure up to that expectation, the damage to McCain could be serious.

It is also foreseeable that news about the economy, and the congressional response, will continue to dominate the headlines. This prospect affords little comfort to McCain. If the situation worsens and Congress remains gridlocked, this news, if anything, will continue to help Obama. If Congress acts and the markets pick up, that should prevent further bleeding but it’s unlikely to provide McCain with much of a boost.

But there is one forseeable event that will benefit McCain. In every modern presidential race where a relatively inexperienced candidate entered the final weeks as a front-runner, there came a time late in the campaign when the electorate took a last, long, skeptical look at that front-runner. It happened most dramatically to Jimmy Carter in 1976, but also to Bill Clinton in 1992 and George Bush in 2000. Each of these front-runners suffered a noticeable downturn in the polls shortly before the election. Clinton was able to regain some of his lost lead; Carter and Bush had to hold on by the skin of their teeth.

Even Ronald Reagan’s standing took a major turn for the worse late in the 1980 campaign. Shortly before the election, his double digit lead nearly vanished, as voters asked whether they really wanted to turn the government over to a “right-wing ideologue.” In vew of the alternative, Reagan’s lead was restored as quickly as he had lost it. But clearly there was a moment of doubt.

I expect such a moment this year with Obama. And that’s why, before too long, McCain should go relentlessly negative. When the electorate takes that last, long, skeptical look at Obama, it should have as many facts available as possible.

Voters understand that to elect Obama is to take a flyer. But the candidate, aided immeasurably by the MSM, has obscured the extent of that flyer. It’s not too late to lift the veil, but time is running out.

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