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11 Weeks to Go

Having nailed down Hawaii's crucial three electoral votes, Barack Obama returned to the Eastern 48 states to find John McCain had opened a big can of whupass on him in his absence.

The sunny optimism of early summer has given way to storm clouds over the Democrats' campaign, as polls and pundits agree that his Republican rival used the last few weeks, and especially Obama's vacation absence from the trail to gain traction for the first time in the race.

"I don't understand what these guys have been doing," a veteran Democratic national strategist told me about Obama's campaign. "It's like they went into cruise control."

McCain has enthusiastically framed the race as a referendum on his opponent, battering Obama as a celebrity dilettante who's too personally ambitious, too untested and too weak to be president. There's ample evidence his attacks are paying off.

Where Obama held a 12-point lead nationally in June, a new L.A. Times-Bloomberg poll released yesterday showed the contest a statistical tie. Worse for Obama, the poll,
here, showed deeper underlying problems: 17 percent of those surveyed said the country is not ready to elect a black president, 35 percent question Obama's patriotism, and almost half say he lacks the right experience to be the nation's chief executive. Beyond that, McCain in the last week also seized the lead in the crucial battleground states of Ohio, Colorado and Virginia and moved slightly ahead in projected electoral college votes, according to a round-up of state by state surveys found here.

The rapid change in the political atmosphere in part reflects the warp speed with which campaign perceptions are shaped in the age of the internet. It is also a reflection of the skill with which the once-stumbling McCain campaign has begun in recent weeks to navigate in that treacherous real time environment:

"i SS McCain stole a march on Obama when the Russian army invaded Georgia; criticized as too belligerent in some quarters, McCain's basic message that he is far better prepared to deal with foreign policy crises than his rival broke through to voters.

"i SS McCain skunked Obama in an event at the Saddleback mega-church in Orange County on Sunday, in which the candidates were questioned separately about ethical, moral and spiritual issues by Rick Warren, the church pastor and best-selling author, upsetting the conventional wisdom that the Democrats' charisma would surely prevail in any joint appearance.

"i SS Obama has failed for weeks to defend himself aggressively against McCain's attacks on his character and patriotism, causing many Democrats to recall unhappily how similar poundings sapped the strength of previous party nominees John Kerry and, OMG, Michael Dukakis.

To make matters worse, Obama also got rolled by the Clintons in the staging of what should be his triumphant nominating convention. Instead, he'll share the spotlight with the Hillary and Bill show; not only will each of them have a featured, prime time speaking slot, but also her name will be put into nomination, giving her delegates a chance effectively to cast votes against the nominee of their party.

In this, the final week of pre-season campaign skirmishing, the big political opportunity for Obama remains the fact that large majorities of people across the nation believe the country is on the wrong track, and are unhappy with the Bush Administration's policies on the economy and in Iraq. However, he has yet to convince voters that he is the right leader to address these problems,

Since June, his by-now familiar mantra of "change" has sounded more and more like a tired platitude and, as of now, McCain is winning the battle to define what the election is about.

Obama needs to find a more populist voice and start hammering away at real-life economic issues gas prices, health care insurance, inflation, unemployment, the middle class squeeze by tying the widely unpopular Bush policies around McCain's neck and beginning to explain exactly how he will help Americans in distress. He has two immediate opportunities to do so, and to regain the momentum the selection of a running mate, to come this week, and the opening of the Democratic National Convention next Monday.

Bottom line: Still Obama's to lose, and he could do just that.

Meanwhile, here's the week's best of the web stuff on the campaign.

John Dickerson has a well-crafted overview essay on how the calendar will shape the campaign the rest of the way on Slate.

Dan Balz has the best analysis of Obama's Dance of the Seven Veils over the vice presidency in the Washington Post.

Politico matches with a good one on McCain's vice presidential strategy
here.

Jack Shafer plays Mr. Cranky in showing how the press gets sucked into the vice presidential speculation game, also on Slate.

This is a very good post on how Obama blew it at Saddleback from the Huffpost.

Greg Sargent does a terrific job of reporting what's happening in the air wars in the battleground states on Talking Points Memo.

Political columnist Michael Goodwin makes a strong case that the Clintons took Obama's lunch money in the run-up to the convention in the New York Daily News.

Paul Krugman roars his unhappiness about Obama going for the capillaries instead of the jugular in his Times column.

Obama isn't doing everything wrong: a look at how his campaign has fought back against a notorious Swiftboater is here.

With the pundit class unanimously tut-tutting over Obama, David Gergen, the Lord Chamberlain of Conventional Wisdom, sets the pace in his blog on CNN.

Bonus pick, just because, here's a lovely piece about
bad writing done cheap.

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