07/23/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Obama And McCain Ebbing Or Flowing?

About a week ago, Republican media specialist Alex Castellanos asked pollster Scott Rasmussen to add a question to one of his surveys: If the November election were between Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who would you vote for? Obama crushed Bush 54-34.

Noting that tracking polls generally show just a 2 to 4 point edge for Obama over John McCain, Castellanos said the most obvious conclusion is that "McCain is not Bush." But more importantly, Castellanos argued, "It means McCain is not running against the Obama who won Iowa, but [against] the more polarizing Democrat [who] Hillary Clinton was beating like a drum in Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, etc."

In the current political environment, according to Castellanos, "where the GOP is in disgrace, the President is unpopular, gasoline is 5 bucks a gallon, housing prices are sinking, and the economy is in the toilet," Obama's slim lead "means he is not an acceptable Democrat. . . . Obama is in big trouble."

Rasmussen himself is not prepared to draw such dramatic conclusions, but he does think the data send a clear warning to the Obama camp:

"The basic question of this race is whether Obama can pass a certain threshold and be deemed 'acceptable' by enough people to move into the White House. Alex [Castellanos] says Obama is not acceptable. I say we don't know yet....For the first time in a long time, what the candidates and campaigns do in the fall will determine the winner."

While Castellanos is a Republican and Rasmussen is a conservative, a number of Democrats are voicing concerns about the quality of the Obama campaign.

Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, said the Obama campaign has had a "lousy start to the general election. Although the political environment continues to favor Obama and the Democrats, the candidate is still not fully on four cylinders."

Brazile is also critical of the McCain campaign, voicing what is becoming an increasingly widely held view that the two candidates are both failing to take full advantage of the ineptitude of the other. "McCain cannot seem to find a good team to help highlight all of his personal advantages. He must figure out how to distance himself from Bush without alienating the conservative base he needs to win in November," Brazile said.

A key Democratic player in the 2004 contest, who requested anonymity, voiced a similar "pox on both your houses" assessment of the prospective nominees:

"The Obama campaign has become everything that caused the Clinton campaign to falter -- arrogance, 'no way we can get beat by that guy' mentality -- play it safe -- hold on to the lead mentality. With all that McCain is up against - the Bush years, a crumbling Republican Party -- and 15 months of 'Obama is amazing,' [McCain] should not be within single digits of Obama - particularly since he has run one of the worst campaigns in decades -- but he is still within striking distance."

Bob Beckel, who managed Walter F. Mondale's 1984 campaign, argues that Obama has lost his edge because he has started to follow the advice of political consultants - like Beckel himself:

"I finally got it. While I was holding Obama to a typical political standard, his supporters' standard, forged in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, was more elevated and exacting. To them, the 'Obama of Winter' had been a calling, while the [current] 'Obama of Summer' was causing an uncomfortable disconnect....My sense is that much of the reaction can be laid at the feet of the growing number of political advisers surrounding him. Political consultants, especially at the presidential level, are a cautious breed. Their instinct is to dumb down the candidates positions to the lowest common denominator to avoid offending the most number of voters."

Dan Gerstein, who ran Senator Joe Lieberman's 2006 Connecticut re-election campaign, argued that both Obama and McCain face huge obstacles, but that Obama has done a better job climbing over them:

"Obama has to quickly convince the millions of swing voters who will decide this race that he is not a Black Panther or Muslim stalking horse and that he is qualified to be commander in chief, after three-plus years in the U.S. Senate and no military experience. . . .McCain has to carry the twin albatrosses of a hugely unpopular and divisive president and a hugely unpopular and divisive shooting war; he must manage the ever-present tensions between his maverick record/tendencies and the demands of his base, and as a result spend critical energy every day just in preventing a right-wing revolt; and on top of all that, he must confront doubts about his age from across the political spectrum, and particularly among older voters who should be one of his most target-rich demos for poaching would-be Obama supporters."

In that context, Gerstein argued, "it seems no contest that Obama has run a better and tighter campaign. . . .a clear, consistent compelling message" promoted by a "very disciplined and effective" team. Conversely, Gerstein contends, McCain has failed to develop a rationale for his campaign "above and beyond his biography -- so far you could best describe his message as 'I'm old and white'."

Castellanos sharply disputed this assessment of the Republican candidate. "If McCain is doing so poorly, why is he doing so well?," Castellanos asked. "Could McCain have done a better job using his money and time this spring? Perhaps. but if you had asked the McCain folks back in March if they would be happy with a campaign that had them essentially tied with Obama with only a little more than 100 days to go, they would have asked, 'where do we sign?'"