12/10/2008 02:05 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While Storm Clouds Gather, Obama Must Get Busier

The Sept. 12 NY Times has a front page piece that no doubt speaks to millions: "Obama's Tone Sharpens as Party Frets."

The story discusses how some Democrats are concerned that the focus of the campaign has wandered in the two weeks since the convention in Denver, particularly in the wake of wall-to-wall coverage surrounding the new celebrity, Sarah Palin.

The race has tightened up, we're told, and the intensity of Barack Obama's paid media and on-the-stump performance is finally starting to reflect this changed reality.

It's about time. I've been antsy for weeks, and it only worsened when this quote jumped out the other day:

"This election is not about issues. This election is about a composite view of what people take away from these candidates."

- Rick Davis, John McCain campaign manager

Pretty brazen comment. It certainly fits how the Republicans would love to see things play out, especially since most Americans have been agitated for years about "issues" like the Iraq war and the economy. The issues are not a Republican's friend.

Unfortunately, Davis may be on to something unless the Obama campaign gets in the game.

The Democratic Party primaries were also about "a composite view" of candidates, not issues. Both frontrunners came with their own cult of personality, and they essentially agreed on every subject. Ultimately, Obama outlasted Hillary Clinton, even though they ended in a virtual tie in popular votes (18 million each) and neither had enough pledged delegates to win the nomination outright. People are naturally drawn to personalities.

Democrats -- going against their tradition -- consistently told pollsters the past 18 months that they were happy with the presidential field. Even in March of this year, after Obama's string of 11 straight wins, Democrats still wanted Clinton to stay in the race by a 2 to 1 margin. Result? Summer polls had Obama's numbers spiking appreciably when paired with his vanquished rival, whose candidacy was every bit as historic as his own.

Indeed, as noted in late July, Obama vs. McCain yielded a statistically meaningless Obama lead, while a mythical matchup of Obama-Clinton beat McCain-Romney by a much bigger 9 points, well outside the margin of error. Polling actually showed the same thing for three straight months, starting in late April (question #3 in pdf here).

This voter sentiment was a notable finding, yet at the end of the day, Obama didn't think it mattered. McCain apparently did.

Another reason Davis has a point is that elections take place in the real world. The impact of the Palin pick is about as real as it gets, particularly among white women (from an 8 point Obama lead before the conventions to a 12 point McCain lead, a 20 point swing in the Washington Post poll), and independents (a 12-15 point McCain lead in Gallup depending on how they're measured). Mind you, this is post-convention polling. It would be fair to assume this turnaround is a surprise at Obama headquarters.

McCain-Palin are no longer behind on the issues, either. The Post poll finds that only 4 in 10 think Obama has done enough to explain what he means by "change." McCain leads by 17 points on the question of handling a crisis, and by 10 points on dealing with Iraq. (We've let that slip?) On whether Palin is qualified to be President, 47% think so, but only 50% say Obama has enough experience.

On the economy, a subject that's historically the Democrats' calling card, Obama's lead is down to 5 points, the topic's closest margin of the year. If this keeps up, we'll need to see Joe Biden in a blue coral pantsuit!

The support Clinton might have provided Obama with her populist economic message and army of women has, to some degree, crossed over to the other side. Not all of them were liberal feminists, obviously. It was mainly a sisterhood thing. The decision not to choose the New York senator created a breach that McCain sauntered into with Palin. It will be the single biggest "game changer" of the entire '08 election if it leads to a third Bush term through McCain.

But what's done is done. Wailing about retro Palin's loony views on global warming (not man-made) or creationism (dinosaurs roamed the earth only 4,000 years ago!) will earn nods of approval in the fur-lined traps of Georgetown's elite liberal salons. It will not, however, grab victory on November 4th.

After all, everyone already knows her thin résumé: small town mayor (5,000), less than two years as governor of the least populous state (670,000), zero experience outside that isolated orbit. It doesn't matter. In today's American Idol culture, spunk and moxie qualify as leadership in helping guide the most powerful secular nation on the planet, 300 million people, through complicated affairs at home and abroad. In these TMZ times, it seems that knowing the "Bush Doctrine" isn't a job requirement for the #2 federal executive position, a "heartbeat away," as they say, from succeeding McCain.

Magna cum laude at Harvard? A lineage that spans continents? How about 12 years in the Illinois legislature and U.S. senate? None of that is considered better preparation by a voting public that graduates high school without even knowing when the American Civil War took place. A public that in adulthood can't name either the Chief Justice of the nation's Supreme Court or our first-ever female Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Fighting Palin's lack of credentials is therefore a non-starter. Obama must reclaim the issues, and fast. Issues, issues, issues.

Meanwhile, McCain's handlers market him as a war hero from the Vietnam era. None of this was ever going to be easy, so Obama should not have crowed a mere six weeks ago that "We are now in the position where the odds of us winning are very good." One can only hope Obama's team has a plan for fighting hard, and from behind, because the more important state-by-state polls may well show similar trends on the heels of the latest national polling.

I'm not depressed, just a worried realist. Sure, the commercial "air war" has yet to fully play out, and there's the debates, and Hill/Bill will campaign for Barack, and there's the chance that Sarah stumbles.

Let's take them in reverse order: 1/ If dem chances rest on Palin gaffes, we're clinging to a thin reed. 2/ Surrogates don't swing elections. They're not on the ballot. 3/ Al Gore won all his debates, and John Kerry did, too. The better man still lost. 4/ In terms of TV ads, the message is crucial, but McCain, his party and their 527's should be financially competitive, not to mention shamefully dishonest. They already are.

The political hurricane is approaching, and we need to batten down the hatches. It will take an awfully swift boat to ride these rapids.