When I watch football, there are few things that unnerve me more than seeing my team try to sit on an early lead against a dangerous opponent. Something changes in the mentality of the players and coaches when they're up 17 points in the first half. They become cautious, less aggressive, less willing to take risks. The coaches start calling less ambitious plays. And slowly but surely, the other team comes back. This is when I usually jump up and down on my couch and pull hair from my head, screaming at the TV: "Why did they throw out the game-plan that worked so well in the first half?!"
I would like to avoid this experience in the 2008 presidential race if at all possible.
When Barack Obama sprang out to an early lead against Hillary Clinton in the primary, his strategy changed. He became cautious, aloof, less willing to engage his opponent, less willing to debate. And he paid for it. Hillary got to play the role of scrappy comeback kid, and, as we all know, the primary nearly went into overtime.
Last week, we were greeted with new encouraging poll numbers for Obama. CNN showed his lead over McCain had doubled (it has since shrunk slightly), and the Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll gave him a 12-15 point lead.
This is all wonderful. But now, don't blow it.
How could he blow it? Two ways. The first is by abandoning the strategy that won him the primaries. He's already showing scary signs of doing this, after a week of aggressive pandering -- er, nuancing -- on issues from gun control to FISA to the death penalty to NAFTA to faith-based programs. While a certain amount of adjusting is natural in the transition to a general election, too much shifting all at once creates a narrative. Suddenly, Republicans can say that Obama's shifting is evidence of him being a slick say-anything-to-win politician, and they frame this as a style-vs.-substance debate.
(It should be noted that even if the style-vs.-substance frame gains traction, that does not necessarily mean Obama will lose. First, because, as will be revealed in the debates, Obama has plenty of substance to back up his style, and second, because style has a winning track record over substance in the last two elections.)
Perhaps the less-discussed way in which Obama can blow this meaningless way-too-early-to-predict-anything lead in the polls, is to start acting like the frontrunner. McCain is dying for him to do this. In fact, he's counting on it. I think McCain's only real chance in 2008 is to ride the "truth-telling old-timer who everybody counted out to soon" narrative, and Obama plays right into this by acting (as he did in the primary) like someone who expects to be crowned winner. If Obama gets the slightest bit complacent with his lead heading into the fall, the old Rovian characterizations of elitism, out-of-touch-ism, and entitlement can re-emerge. Combine those with the slick say-anything-to-win charges described above, and you could have a perfect storm for McCain, one through which he can ride the S.S. Comeback, the ship he is so desperate to captain.
But I don't want to sound bleak. Obama still has the advantage here, and it is his election to lose. A historic victory is within his grasp so long as he remembers the lessons of the football team who entered the second half 17 points ahead: Don't sit on the lead, don't take anything for granted, and, for crying out loud, don't throw out the brilliant strategy that got you this far.
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