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Obama in Denver: A Defining Moment

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As the Democrats gather for their quadrennial convention in Denver, it is clear that Sen. Barack Obama is on the ropes. After leading John McCain in presidential matchups for months, our new Reuters/Zogby poll this past week shows Obama trailing by 5 points nationally. This is a 12 point turnaround from the Reuters/Zogby poll in July, which showed Obama comfortably leading McCain 47%-40%. While it seems dramatic, we need to understand that this has been a slow and steady transition. And the reasons are clear.

Obama has clearly lost high levels of support from young voters and liberals. Many liberals are tough and demand purity and Obama has appeared to compromise on issues dear to their hearts like civil liberties, Iraq, and off-shore oil drilling. Similarly, some young people are beginning to question whether the compromising centrist Obama is the different sort of politician they were looking for.

I recall shocking reporters during the European portion of Obama's recent overseas trip, suggesting that the trip would actually benefit McCain because it would scare conservatives. For those on the right who were squidgy about McCain, seeing such adulation for Obama suggested that this liberal Democrat could win and it was time to rally around the Republican -- even if he wasn't their favorite. Adding insult to injury for conservatives, having Obama embraced by "Europeans" was just over the top.

McCain seized opportunities to display actionable leadership. A strong majority of Americans support off-shore oil drilling (the devil is certainly in the details, but Americans are hungry for action on energy) and McCain came out forthrightly in support while Obama vacillated. Then the Russian crisis in Georgia allowed McCain to display his tough side with clarity. It did not help Obama that he was on vacation and somewhat out of the loop in Hawaii. Speaking of vacation, McCain gave some hard punches to Obama on his "celebrity" status and inexperience, much of this while Obama was away.

Obama still has to contend with the Clintons and a new poll shows that only 56% of Clinton-backers would vote for Obama, while 21% intend to vote for McCain.

All and all, August has been rough for Sen. Obama and it has raised the issue that August has been a cruel month for Democratic nominees historically. Remember Jimmy Carter was leading Gerald Ford in 1976 by 30 points. His downward spiral began in August and Carter ultimately won by only one point. Michael Dukakis in 1988 was mauled by George H.W. Bush and squandered a 17-point lead in July to go down in defeat. John Kerry was famously "swiftboated" in August of 2004 and never recovered his image.

But this year could be different. The three previous Democrats suffered after their nomination convention. Arguably, Obama has taken his hits and now gets to refocus his campaign in late August. No doubt he has to have a great convention. Hillary Clinton must rally her supporters to Obama. She needs to do that as much for him as she does for her own future. And Obama has to redefine who he is and what he stands for in a brilliant convention speech. That's a tall order, but remember, all of this started for Sen. Obama with a brilliant convention speech four years ago.

What to look for beyond next week? Obama cannot buy enough "experience" between now and November, but he needs to be Jack Kennedy. He needs to clearly demonstrate "that the torch has passed to a new generation" and lay out a new, more positive image of America in the world of the 21st Century, a vision for hope and opportunity. He needs to show that his very presence at the podium is an immigrant success story, much like Kennedy's and millions of Americans. As for McCain, ironically, he has consolidated his Republican base. He now gets 83% of Republicans and over 80% of conservatives who support him against Obama. It's time for McCain to accentuate the fact that he's a maverick, a moderate, that he is anti-government, that he knows firsthand how dysfunctional Washington is and that he is the right man to clean it up. Sounds a lot like Harry Truman.

John Kennedy vs. Harry Truman in 2008. Now that's worth the price of admission.

For more Huffington Post coverage from the Democratic National Convention, visit our Politics @ the DNC page, our Democratic Convention Big News Page, and our HuffPost bloggers' Twitter feed, live from Denver.