Is the tide turning?

August 18, 2008

David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Heading into the candidates’ appearances on Saturday night at Saddleback Church, the conventional wisdom in politics was Barack Obama should have a clear upper hand in any joint appearance with John McCain — one the young, eloquent, cool, charismatic dude who can charm birds from the trees, the other the meandering, sometimes bumbling, old fellow who can barely distinguish Sunnis from Shiias.

Well, kiss that myth goodbye.

McCain came roaring out of the gate from the first question and was a commanding figure throughout the night as he spoke directly and often movingly about his past and the country’s future. By contrast, Obama was often searching for words and while far more thoughtful, was also less emotionally connective with his audience.

To be sure, Obama held on to the loyalty of his own supporters — many have written in blog sites since how much they respected both his nuanced answers and the honesty of his convictions, especially his Christian faith.

There is no evidence that he lost ground through Saddleback. Moreover, Democrats can poke lots of holes in McCain’s arguments and can charge that he is too much the warrior who would be too quick to send troops hither and yon. So, there is much for Democrats to chew on.

But the point is that McCain showed that he can be a much more formidable and effective campaigner in a joint appearance than hardly anyone imagined. The debates this fall are going to be pivotal to the final outcome of the election, and McCain gave a clear wake-up call to the Obama team that he may be much tougher to beat than expected.

Moreover, McCain is now on a sustained roll in his campaign. Since the time he shook up his organization a few weeks ago, he has been much more focused and has started to get through to voters. Democrats — and the press — didn’t like the quality of those ads, but they seem to have worked politically. His stand on drilling and on Russia have also strengthened his aura of command. And now Saddleback.

That’s quite a run and it is reflected in the polls: not only have the national numbers tightened up but McCain has actually moved ahead (slightly) in three key battleground states: Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.

A web site that averages all significant polls, RealClearPolitics.com, has previously projected that just looking at polls, Obama was ahead in states with over 300 electoral votes; now he is down to 275 — a tiny cushion since 270 is the magical number for winning.

At Saddleback, Obama surely held on to his base support but McCain strengthened his and probably appealed to some undecideds, too.

In short, the tide is moving for the first time in the Republican direction. And the realization is setting in that McCain might just win.

We are still many weeks away from the election and the overall landscape clearly favors the Democrats, but these latest developments put pressure on Obama and his party to pull themselves together or face a stunning upset. What must they do? For starters:

  • Obama must select a running mate who gives a lift to his campaign and can also hammer home a message in the convention and in the vice presidential debate this fall. He definitely needs a fighter by his side. (For my money, Hillary Clinton looks better and better; if not her, Joe Biden is probably the best fighter — perhaps Evan Bayh, or a surprise choice.)
  • The Democratic convention in Denver has to be a roaring success, not only uniting the party but sending a much clearer, crisper message about why 4 more years will be 4 more years of tears.
  • Obama himself must find his voice again, not only in his acceptance address but in the debates. He needs to bring passion as well as inspiration, a clear sense of what the choice is, and a compelling sense of why he is strong enough as well as wise enough to lead the country through tough times.

In the meantime, the message of the moment is that John McCain is no old fuddy-duddy who isn’t sure where he is going; he was on fire at Saddleback and for the first time, he looks like he could win in November.

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