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Obama Regains Momentum in Tight Race

19 September 2008 at 20:38 | 1183 views

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The party conventions and the Sarah Palin surge behind them, Barack Obama and John McCain are neck and neck again in their race for the White House - with the momentum and the political environment tilting toward the Democrats.

Upcoming televised debates provide the next likely opportunity for someone to take control.

In recent days, Democrat Obama has seemed to regain his footing amid Wall Street’s chaos and a renewed focus on the economy, a Democratic strength with a Republican in the White House. Also, McCain’s late-summer boost, credited to his choice of Palin as his running mate, has appeared to dissipate.

A flurry of national polls now show Obama even or slightly ahead of McCain depending on the survey. The race to reach 270 Electoral College votes, however, remains extraordinarily close in Ohio, Florida and other key states.

"The tide came in, but the tide has gone back out. We’re back to where we were" in early August, said Alex Castellanos, a GOP operative and veteran of President Bush’s re-election campaign. "Republicans are in for a tough week."

If not six.

By most indicators, this is an election year made for Democrats.

Most people think the country is headed the wrong direction, and they are very sour on Bush. The nation is at war and in economic straits. History shows voters are reluctant to keep a political party in office for three straight terms, and people are hungry for change.

Even so, Obama has struggled to stake out a significant lead. He has been fighting to reassure voters who can’t see him - a first-term senator from Chicago with a foreign-sounding name, black skin and a liberal voting record - as president.

Despite that, Obama spent much of the summer driving the campaign agenda.

Then, McCain likened Obama to a celebrity who offered little but soaring rhetoric, and rolled out hard-hitting TV ads against him. Democrats fretted that their guy was too slow to respond, and some questioned whether Republicans were right.

During a party-unifying Democratic convention, Obama went after McCain with fervor.

One day later, McCain shocked the political world - Obama’s campaign included - by naming Palin his vice presidential nominee, making her the first woman on a GOP national ticket. Then, he gave a convention speech emphasizing his reformer streak as he sought to free himself from the albatross that is the unpopular Bush.

McCain entered the fall having energized the party’s conservative base and wielding a message of change. Polls showed an uptick in overall support as women swung toward the Republican team.

Obama’s campaign appeared unsure how to respond as questions of character and personality dominated the dialogue. Party insiders openly urged Obama to return to the one issue that Democrats have had an edge on for months - the economy.

Then, financial institutions began failing and the stock market tumbled.

"It allowed Obama to bring the dialogue back to where he expected it to be and where he wanted it to be, after a few personality driven weeks," said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster and former Hillary Rodham Clinton adviser.

Obama embraced the shift.

He blamed Bush policies and argued McCain would offer the same. He empathized with a smarting public.

"Unlike Sen. McCain, it didn’t take a crisis on Wall Street for me to understand that folks are hurting out on Main Street," said Obama, finding his stride as he talked more in soundbites, less in soaring rhetoric.

McCain, meantime, has stumbled - at, perhaps, the worst possible time.

As markets nose-dived, the Arizona senator made his oft-repeated assertion that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." Democrats called him out of touch and just like Bush.

McCain, who has acknowledged that economics is not his strongest suit, also called the chaos "one of the most severe crises in modern times." He’s spent the days since trying to explain, let voters know that he feels their pain and distance himself from Bush, saying he would fire Securities and Exchange Chairman Christopher Cox - appointed by Bush in 2005 - if he were president.

Meanwhile, Palin’s personal and professional lives have undergone intense examination, and it’s left her a tad worse for the wear.

She struggled to answer foreign policy questions in her first televised interview, was parodied on "Saturday Night Live" as lacking substance and has been the subject of a spate of negative news stories about her brief tenure as Alaska governor and as a small-town mayor.

Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican, called it a "stretch" to say she has the experience needed to be president if needed and added: "She doesn’t have any foreign policy credentials." And, while he didn’t question her qualifications, Bush’s former political guru Karl Rove labeled Palin a "political pick" and said excitement over her will subside.

Perhaps it already has.