Eight Weeks to Go

So much for a different kind of politics.

Since the Republican convention ended, John McCain has soared on the continuing strength of the bounce he got from selecting Sarah Palin as a running mate and kept Barack Obama on defense - defending, explaining and rolling around in the mud with the Republicans exactly where the candidate of change doesn't want to be.

With two months left before the Nov. 4 election, here is a look at the key factors shaping the race today:

The Palin effect. The GOP vice presidential wannabe has become a legitimate cultural (not just political) phenomenon this week, with the roll-out of a new line of Sarah Palin action figures. Whether they turn out to be this year's hottest holiday gift or the 2008 Pet Rock, the Democratic ticket for now is tying itself in knots trying to figure out how to fight back; witness Obama igniting another gender firestorm by saying "you can put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig,"" a time honored cliche of American politics that the McCain camp jumped as an unchivalrous insult of Palin right now. Somehow, Obama's campaign needs to find a way to stop Palin from sucking all the oxygen out of the political atmosphere: a ban on talking about her would be a good start. Advantage: McCain.

The Bounce. The Democrats got a nice little bounce from their Obarama at Broncos stadium, but the GOP crew cut them off at the knees 12 hours later with the announcement of Palin. Since then McCain has bounced higher than a kangaroo on speed as he and Palin keep drawing big crowds while erasing Obama's lead in the polls. The most recent surveys the respected Wall Street Journal- NBC survey released yesterday has the race tied suggest McCain is coming back to earth a bit, but meanwhile he seized complete control of the momentum and agenda coming out of his convention. Advantage: McCain

The Polls. McCain couldn't have had a better week as poll after poll showed him moving ahead of Obama, and big shifts in his favor among key voters groups, including women and independents. Because politics is perception, the significance of the surveys was that they shattered the notion among the media and cognoscenti that Obama was inevitable; as a practical matter, they also led to a big infusion of cash. The bottom line remains, however, that a presidential race is not a national election, but 50 state elections, and Obama still holds a slight edge in electoral college projections.
Advantage: McCain

Message. McCain picked Obama's pocket by appropriating the Democrats' message of "change," adapting it by saying, in effect, that he and Palin represent change voters can trust, in contrast to the risks posed by Obama. Fundamentally, however, McCain does not represent substantial change from George Bush on the economy, which is the number one issue for voters. If Obama can stop talking about pigs, who's honorable and who isn''t long enough to tweak his own message to something like "Enough already - here's change to help the middle class," he can take advantage of a political landscape that greatly favors Democrats. Advantage: Obama

Money. Among the countless benefits Palin has brought, opening the floodgates to tens of millions of dollars in contributions that were not forthcoming when McCain stood alone is right near the top of the list. Obama is still likely to out raise his GOP foes, but the money race looks a lot closer than it did a month ago.Advantage: Obama

Organization. Every campaign always insists that it is quietly registering countless new voters and will have an unprecedented "ground game," to grind out victory by identifying and delivering to the polls every possible supporter. The difference this time is that the Obama camp proved they were actually capable of it during a primary season when they organized rings around the front-running Hillary Clinton campaign. Obama's consultants say the national polls aren't counting millions of new, younger voters who have signed up, and that their precinct operation will be the difference on Election Day. Obama fans better hope they're telling the truth. Advantage: Obama

Offense-Defense. McCain chief strategist Steve Schmidt is proving a master of news cycle campaigning in the internet age, with a constant barrage of attacks that have put Obama back on his heels. Something of a new low was reached with a truly sleazy TV ad in which the Republicans accuse Obama of sponsoring a bill to provide sex education to kindergartners all but calling him a pedophile - when the legislation was written to protect little kids. But until Obama shows he can hit GOP major league pitching, they'll keep throwing the high hard ones at his head.
Advantage: McCain

Economy. The nation's largest housing lenders are in receivership, the market is down, gas prices are high, unemployment is up, and Obama has so far failed to cash in politically on soaring middle anxiety about the economy. Although McCain is out there accusing his foe of wanting to raise taxes on everyone in America, a Wall Street Journal analysis of both economic programs shows that Obama is right in portraying the Republicans' plan as four more years of Bushonmics. Obama is scheduled to have lunch with Bill Clinton Thursday, so maybe the Big Dog will explain to him how to win an election by becoming a tribune of the middle class. Advantage: Obama

Debates. Given the Mr. Toad volatility of the campaign, and the wild ride guaranteed by 24/7 real time internet and cable campaigning, 2008 looks like another 1-2 point election, which means this year's debates will likely be decisive. Presidential debates are scheduled Sept. 26, Oct. 7 and Oct. 15, with the Palin-Joe Biden vice-presidential match-up on Oct. 2. Advantage ?

Score - McCain 4, Obama 4: It comes down to the debates.

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