06/10/2008 12:41 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama-McCain: The Early Results

Most Americans don't even start thinking about the election until after Labor Day. So, this is not a prediction. It's not even prediction adjacent. At best, it's a very reticent observation of the early landscape. And those can change.

But -- right now -- I get the sense that Barack Obama will clean the table with John McCain.

John McCain is a remarkable man, with a substantial life. But inexplicably he looks petulant, stiff, whiney and -- shocking to note during his "Green Banner" speech -- awkward. With a nervous laugh. But it goes far beyond those superficialities. His economic plan continues the one driving America into a recession, with an economic advisor (Phil Graham) who's a lobbyist for the banking industry at the heart of the housing crisis. More importantly, Sen. McCain himself admits knowing little about the economy -- an issue that may be the biggest this year, even over Iraq. And as for Iraq, he's largely supportive of the president, who has a 28% approval rating. Indeed, he's voted with the 28% president a full 95% of the time.

John McCain can be charming when he quips one-on-one with Jon Stewart, but when he's out making speeches, he appears lost. Making gaffe-after-repetitive gaffe. (Incorrectly claiming al Qaeda is in Iran. That we should be in Iraq for 100 years. Singing "Bomb-bomb-bomb Iran.")

But perhaps the biggest gaffe of all for John McCain was planned. The decision to make a speech the same night that Barack Obama became the presumptive Democratic nominee allowed everyone to compare the two right at the start, Day One. And even to conservative commentators on Fox News, McCain came across dismally on every level -- content, warmth, crowd size, enthusiasm and banner décor -- while Obama was seen as vibrant, youthful and graceful.

But it's far worse than image (critical though that is): because at that speech, John McCain ceded the playing field to Barack Obama.

McCain spent his speech -- not laying out his own forthright agenda -- but explaining why he's not what Barack Obama says he is, a branch of George Bush. (A task made difficult with his 95% voting record in agreement.) As a result, Sen. McCain painted himself two choices, and he's sunk with both. He can continue to support George Bush, or be "about change." With the first, he's tied to a 28% president. With the second, he loses the G.O.P. base and lets Obama create the ground rules -- making the campaign be about change, the heart of Obama's candidacy.

His campaign so-follows Obama that the new McCain slogan (after messing up the first one) is a direct copy of Obama's. "Change we can believe in." If this was corporate product advertising, he'd be sued for copyright infringement. "Leadership we can believe in." How can you suggest yourself as an agent of change, when you can't even come up with your own slogan? Worse, McCain is defining himself in Obama's own terms.

Add to all this that Republicans are going to get crushed in the House and Senate. That 14 million people voted Democratic on Super Tuesday, but only 10 million Republican. That Democrats have won all three special House elections in conservative Republican districts.

Barack Obama has big hurdles to overcome. But every politician has hurdles. John McCain certainly does. Yes, Obama has to deal with white, non-college-educated voters and the large, past-remnants of Rev. Wright. Yet McCain has to overcome the gulf of black, young and Hispanic voters (a recent poll gave the latter to Democrats by 67-29%), as well as the ghosts of both Rev. Hagee and Rev. Parsley, which play into the already-deep distrust by the Republican's own far-Right, evangelical base.

And then, when the two candidates finally hit the road together, there is going to be a visceral, profound difference. And beyond just this image gap (which, make no mistake, is critical), but John McCain has plenty of substantive questions to resolve, as well. Lobbyists on his campaign, votes against New Orleans recovery -- while saying otherwise, and changing his position to support George Bush's proposals to warrantlessly wiretap Americans.

Last week, a Gallup Poll of likely voters had Obama ahead of McCain by 5 points, up six from a month ago. Now, this is meaningless as a gauge of the election. But it speaks to something else -- McCain has had a free field without anyone much criticizing him. And yet, he dropped support. If John McCain can lose six points running against no one, while his opponents were busy battering themselves in a split party, it should raise major caution signs to Republicans about what happens when he's actually challenged.

A decade ago, John McCain was a maverick. Today, he seems grasping for a direction, for a message. "I have more experience" isn't enough. It wasn't enough for Al Gore against George Bush, or for the first George Bush against Bill Clinton. If his message is to ridicule Barack Obama for wanting to talk with leaders of our enemies -- 67% of Americans want the president to talk with such leaders.

No Democrat should rest easy. That would be foolish. All campaigns are bitterly hard fights. This will be, too.

But let's put it this way, to any Republican furious at this blathering: if right now you had to bet your entire life savings on which candidate would win -- on whom would you put every last cent you had?

John McCain has had over two months to himself, to set the table and position everything for the campaign. And, with an open field, he's lost six points and handed the ball and the agenda to Barack Obama.

It's still so early, and so much can change. But I'd rather have the ball and be playing on my home turf and be ahead by a touchdown than the other way. Especially when your opponent is playing with a weight tied to their leg, dragging an entire party down.