DENVER - Gov. Sarah Palin's candidacy is clearly deteriorating. The only question is whether the decline is more like Lehman Bros or a polar ice cap.
Palin's initial popularity could turn out to be a bubble - a delusional valuation that crashes the moment that reality reasserts itself. Critics are watching Thursday's debate for such a moment. That's when raw, unfiltered information about Palin will finally hit the political markets.
Palin's shortcomings, however, could take much longer to break through. Couple the scripted strategy of the McCain campaign with an A.D.D. press corps - distracted by everything from lipstick on a pig to the pigs on Wall Street - and Palin's looming vice presidency may bother the public about as much as global warming. Yes, some people see the inevitable disaster, but the majority thinks the problem is distant enough to be ignored.
On the Obama plane en route from Chicago to Denver today, I tried asking Obama's staff about the possible routes for Palin's further demise. A normally chatty spokesperson turned taciturn - no comments on Palin at all. During that exchange, Sen. Obama himself briefly walked through the aisle, clutching an open laptop, but he was not taking questions.
Back in Chicago, the closest Obama staffers come to touching Palin is clicking the forward button - they emailed reporters today with a scathing new column by Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria. The normally measured columnist, former editor of Foreign Affairs and one of the cooler Sunday pundits, rips into Palin as a novice disaster, a talking-point-dispensing robot full of "nonsense" and "gibberish" who is "utterly unqualified to be vice president." Amplifying that low rumble among conservative critics, he called for her early exit: "Will someone please put Sarah Palin out of her agony?"
Palin's favorable ratings have been slowly melting, and today's Washington Post reports that more heat is on the way. "The worst may be yet to come for Palin," writes Howie Kurtz, "sources say CBS has two more responses on tape that will likely prove embarrassing." If there are more memorable mistakes piling up this week, Palin will have even less room for error at Thursday's debate.
George Stephanopoulos says the stakes are high -- and he knows, since network anchors help decide who "wins" debates.
"A major mistake on foreign policy would be absolutely fatal to her candidacy," he said on Good Morning America. "She's become a problem for Senator McCain, no question about it," he explained. "When you become a punch line in politics, it is one of the worst things that can happen, and that is what's happening to Sarah Palin now."
Obama is attacking McCain in Colorado today for his gambling ties, and while no one here is saying it, the biggest bet of McCain's career is about to get called on Thursday.