Washington Matters


The Week That Was


Wherever you stand on the race between Barack Obama and John McCain, you have to admit the last seven days have redrawn the landscape. It's worth taking a deep breath and looking at what we learned -- and what challenges face the candidates over the next 55 days.

Sarah Palin has obviously changed everything. She's energized the GOP conservative base, especially evangelicals and women. That has helped close the enthusiasm gap, robbing Obama of a big advantage. But will it last? Probably. Does it come too late to take full advantage of evangelical organizational help? To some extent, but a truly revved up base that stays revved up will make it to full strength.

Equally important, women are flocking to her. In several polls, Obama's 20 point advantage among white women has turned into a small disadvantage. Many women see Palin as one of them -- a mother balancing career and family who understands their concerns. But will that change when her positions become clearer and they turn out to be at odds with those of many of these women? Will policy matter or is it just personality and character?

There is good news for Obama in the polls, as well. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll shows Obama's favorability rating rising to 53%, a high for the year, and fewer voters than before think Obama is a risky choice for president. That's a crucial prerequisite for winning, though far from a guarantee. (According to the poll, 48% think Obama's a riskier choice than McCain, while 41% think McCain's riskier.)

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Palin, clearly emerging as a polarizing figure whom people either love or hate, is also invigorating some Obama  supporters who may have become complacent. He's getting more volunteers, and despite some concern about money (or maybe because of it), there's a new outpouring. At the same time, Palin is filling GOP coffers as never before.

Palin has also helped redraw the electoral map, putting more of the focus back on the traditional swing states. Obama still hopes -- and is working hard --- to pick off a few red states such as Virginia and Colorado, but he's given up on Georgia, pulling his ads and some of his staff.

Palin spent her first week -- longer than expected -- at McCain's side. There were good reasons for that: McCain's people wanted to keep her under their wing, protect her from the media and have a chance to coach her on McCain's positions and issues. She's also had lots of media training in how to turn hostile questions into opportunities to repeat her standard stump lines.  But there was another reason for the joint appearances. Palin was drawing crowds beyond McCain's wildest imagination. People are going to notice if  his solo rallies attract 500 people instead of the 10,000 they drew when Palin was by his side. So don't be surprised to see a lot more joint appearances.

Palin is benefiting from the media's lack of popularity. She's running against us and the people love it. When we debunk her claims or delve into her history, it only serves (so far, anyway) to make her more popular.

Still, the Palin infatuation can't last. Eventually, voters will go back to thinking of this as a race between Obama and McCain. It's interesting that no one has asked McCain what role he envisions for Palin, other than as a general helpmate in the battle to reform Washington. Will he make her a true partner the way Clinton and Bush made their vice presidents partners? Will voters be able to conjure up an image of a President McCain asking Palin for advice?

Lots of people are looking at the last week and giving Obama advice. We might as well give him our 2 cents. If he hopes to win, he has to keep the focus on McCain, not Palin. And he has to sharpen his attacks, though he can't stop explaining what kinds of change he has in mind. And he'd be wise to keep foremost in his mind one number in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll -- 74% believe McCain would continue most of Bush's policies. That's still Obama's biggest selling point and biggest hope.

 



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