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44 Days to Go

With just over six weeks to go before the presidential election between Barack Obama and John McCain, here's a list of five suggestions to keep in mind when navigating the rapids and torrents of political media coverage:

1-Events are more important than the campaigns. In the last six weeks alone, real-world events have abruptly changed the agenda and shifted the momentum of the race. First, Russia's invasion of Georgia in early August immediately put national security back at the top of the campaign conversation, to the advantage of McCain, who struck a high-profile and aggressive stance, in contrast to Obama, who offered little but pre-chewed platitudes before returning to his vacation.

The episode served to remind the public of McCain's perceived advantage on foreign policy, and started a tilt of undecided voters towards the Republican that Obama didn't stop until the second Big Event, last week's banking meltdown, which triggered a full-blown crisis and quickly returned the campaign talk to economics, Obama's strong suit. In between, of course, the Sarah Palin hurricane roared as another Big Story, but one that is less likely to have lasting impact beyond helping McCain to consolidate his Republican base.

2-Race matters. Democrats who were beginning to feel confident again at the recent pro-Obama shift in national polls were chilled by a new AP/Yahoo poll, conducted with Stanford University that suggests that "the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 -- about two and one-half percentage points."

Among other things, the poll found that only 7 in 10 Democrats is supporting Obama, and that among that group, large numbers hold negative attitudes about blacks such as they are "complaining," "violent" or "lazy." Said Stanford political scientist Paul Sniderman, who helped design the poll: "There are a lot fewer bigots than there were 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean there's only a few bigots." You can link to the survey here.

3-Forget the national polls. Amid the constant barrage of daily national polls - He's up! He's down! Oh, he's back up! - it's easy to forget that a presidential campaign is not a national election, but 50 state elections that form the framework for the electoral college vote.

As of today, McCain is significantly ahead in states with 216 electoral votes while Obama is significantly ahead in states with 202. As a practical matter, that means the election is likely to be decided in these eight toss-up states with 120 electoral votes: Colorado and Nevada in the west; Indiana, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania in the Midwest and New Hampshire in the northeast. Political junkies can check in for a daily fix of state-by-state polling data here.

4-The debates will be decisive. Big picture, Obama and McCain both come to the table with 45 percent of voters on their side, so the fight is about the 10 percent of those who are undecided. It is the shifts in the views of this small group that account for the day-to-day movement in the national polls.

Whenever one of the cable nets does a piece on undecided voters they usually track down some terminally earnest, usually corpulent, person usually wearing wire rims in some rural diner, who says something like "I just haven't heard enough yet about their positions on deferred maintenance for infrastructure to make up my mind." Bushwah. Let's be honest, most of that 10 percent isn't paying close, if any, attention and will probably make up their minds in the last day or two before the election. That's why the stakes are so high for the upcoming series of televised debates; the one vice-presidential and three presidential debates represent the candidates' best chances to attract large numbers of the undecideds and make an impression on them. They tee it up first Friday night in Mississippi at 6 p.m. PDT.

5-The referees have lost control of the game Among other things, the 2008 campaign is likely to be remembered as the year when the mainstream media - the big papers and the networks - lost the ability to act as a referee in presidential campaigns. Faced with growing questions about, well, lies that McCain and Sarah Palin put in their ads and in their speeches, campaign coat holder Brian Rogers said this: "We're running a campaign to win. And we're not too concerned about what the media filter tries to say about it."

So despite a drumbeat of stories pointing out the falsity of charges McCain keeps hurling for example, that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class, when his tax plan calls for higher taxes only on the top 2 percent polls show that a majority of Americans believe McCain's claim. And just like America went to war in Iraq believing that country was behind the 9/11 attacks, large numbers of people now believe that Obama is a Muslim, as Nick Kristof shows here.

Bottom line: the ways and means by which voters especially that crucial 10 percent - get their information this year will be very different from any previous campaign. Just like the rest of the 2008 election.

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