10/29/2007 12:52 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Morning Read: The Obama Dilemma

Monday morning's papers are awash with speculation as to why Barack Obama has not caught fire or2007-10-29-obama.jpg if he ever will. It's a great question given his rather spectacular early break-in to the presidential campaign and his equally stunning stall-out ever since.

The L.A. Times' Robin Abcarian, accompanying the Illinois Senator through a campaign swing into Iowa, scratches her head over why a guy who is met like a hero wherever he goes doesn't have the numbers to match:

Crowds coo, strain to shake his hand, get his autograph, take his picture. In town meetings, supporters testify with religious fervor. At a Des Moines forum on global climate change, high school physics teacher Bill Cox lobbed the ultimate love bomb: "You remind me of John Kennedy," Cox said. "Are you going to be the person to . . . lead us to true energy independence?"

"I am the man," Obama replied confidently, prompting an ovation.

So why isn't Obama doing better in the polls?

Abcarian makes an attempt to answer her own query through the voice of several CW experts -- all of them pretty unsatisfying. Maybe voters were curious about Obama, proffers one poli sci prof, but not fully committed. Maybe. Maybe not.

The Independent of London's U.S.-based correspondent notes, as does The New York Times, and just about every other campaign reporter, that Obama -- feeling the crush of the January 3 Iowa caucuses, is now ramping up his attacks on Hillary Clinton (specifically on her recent vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a "terrorist organization").

Obama's dilemma is if he can pull off this home stretch pivot. After campaigning for the entire year on a supposed "politics of hope" that eschewed attacks and divisive wedges can he now open up a wedge with attacks on Clinton?

Far be it from me to answer my own question!

I can say this much, however. My last experience in Iowa during the 2004 primaries offers up totally contradictory suggestions.

I got to Des Moines one week before the actual caucus when Howard Dean was still way out in front but starting to stall. Over the succeeding week, Dean crashed and Kerry -- who only months before had been in national single digits-- soared to win the caucus and the nomination. And for no apparent, single reason. Kerry's victory was almost as inexplicable as Obama's current sagging poll numbers.

Two possible conclusions: a) You can't trust the polls and the entire situation can be turned on its head almost overnight, meaning that Obamaites (and for that matter Edwards supporters) should not yet despair. Or b) In the end, the majority of the Democratic electorate, all on its own, almost always defaults to the safest, most Establishment-oriented choice available.

I fear, against all my own impulses and desires, that the latter is the case. It's a rather bitter reality to contend with as it short-circuits all those "If-only" notions that often drive progressives: If only the media gave outsider or insurgent candidates a better shake; if only Democrats spoke out more boldly the electorate would be galvanized; if only ... fill in the blank.

In the end, it might come down to "If only the electorate itself were willing to break with the past, the past would be broken."