This election is dead even, but the track ahead hides many potholes and pitfalls. One misstep or outside event – a factor that’s not even visible or predictable now – could determine the winner two months from now.
What’s clear, and encouraging, is that Americans are energized by the campaign and enthusiastic about their choices. TV ratings for the conventions broke records. Nine of 10 voters tell the ABC/Washington Post poll they are closely following the campaign, and half say they are very involved – double the number eight years ago.
Sure, Barack Obama still has to recruit reluctant Clinton supporters, and some evangelicals are still not sold on John McCain, but few voters complain that they are choosing “the lesser of two evils” or “none of the above.”
The result is an extremely close contest. The ABC/Post survey has Obama up 1 point among registered voters, McCain up 2 points among likely voters. When the Web site Real Clear Politics projects the outcome in all 50 states, Obama leads with 273 electoral votes to McCain’s 265.
Behind those numbers, however, each candidate displays significant weaknesses. Here’s what to look for in the weeks ahead, the flaws that could break an ankle and decide the election.
John McCain: The Republican’s biggest problem is trying to defy logic. He’s running as an outsider after spending the past 26 years in Congress; he’s urging voters to “throw the bums out” of Washington, but the “bums” are members of his own party. The only politician who ever ran successfully as an incumbent and an insurgent at the same time was Ronald Reagan in 1984. And John McCain is no Ronald Reagan.
No wonder that Republicans barely mentioned the words “George Bush” in St. Paul. The other phrase you seldom heard was “the economy,” even though two of five voters say it’s the most important issue. The reason lies in a series of devastating numbers: 4, 6.1, 47, 80. As in $4 gasoline, 6.1 percent unemployment, 47 million without health insurance, 80 percent who think the country is off track.
Add in three other numbers McCain would like voters to forget: 72, his age; 6, the times he’s had skin cancer; and 7, the number of houses he owns. His record of physical and moral courage is unmatched; but his wife’s vast wealth makes him seem insulated from the cares and stresses of ordinary Americans.
Sarah Palin: She has enjoyed the most astonishing entrance into national politics in recent memory – perhaps ever. Working moms across America see her as “just like me,” juggling jobs and family, carpools and babysitters. But while her energy can be a huge asset, it can also emphasize McCain’s frailty. Her colorful vitality can make him seem grayer and slower than ever.
Once voters get over the novelty of a 44-year-old “hockey mom” running for vice president, they could start examining her meager credentials more closely. And she has never been subjected to the kind of scrutiny she is about to endure – into her record in office, her answers to tough questions, even her wardrobe and hairstyle. She’s a rookie, and rookies make mistakes.
Barack Obama: Even his most ardent acolytes have to admit his record of accomplishment is painfully thin. A few years as a community organizer or state legislator do not a president make.
Hillary Clinton exposed his weakness among white working-class voters (primarily Catholics) in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where many still see him as the candidate of Harvard Yard and Hyde Park, not Altoona and Akron. Now Palin has aggravated his problem – four of five white women with kids at home have a favorable impression of her – and the ABC/Post poll shows a sharp shift since her nomination.
In August, white women favored Obama by 8 points, now McCain leads by 12, and one of their key issues is security. Four years ago, Bush convinced those mothers he would keep their kids safer than John Kerry would, and the pattern is repeating itself. By two to one, voters think McCain is better suited to be commander in chief.
Joe Biden: His foreign-policy credentials fill a huge hole in Obama’s resume. But if Palin’s youth accents McCain’s age, Biden’s record spotlights his running mate’s deficiencies. The odds are high that he will come across as flip or patronizing toward Palin. And his born-again image – the scrappy blue-collar kid from Scranton, Pa. – feels forced and unconvincing.
As they thunder toward the finish line, one of these candidates could pull up lame. We just don’t know which one yet.
Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2008, Steven and Cokie Roberts. Distributed by Newspaper Enterprise Assn.