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Plotting an Endgame

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After back-to-back national conventions that captured the attention of much of the electorate, the presidential race between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain remains a puzzle. Despite the public's deep dissatisfaction with President Bush, his party's standard-bearer remains very much in contention.

When Democratic operatives look at the national political environment, they behold a sea of polling indicators suggesting that Obama should be running away with this contest, including voters' economic worries; the public's extreme dissatisfaction with the direction of the country; and Bush's abysmal job-approval ratings. Yet Obama is still locked in a fairly close race, and Democrats are both fretful and at a loss to explain the situation.

"I think there are a lot of Democrats who think we should be up by 15 points in the current environment, and they're wondering why," said one Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity in order to be more candid.

At the same time, some Republicans worry that their convention did little to address the prime concerns of swing voters. Conservative activists applauded McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate. Likewise, the Republican Right was happy that not only did the GOP platform remain thoroughly conservative, the convention's primetime program featured plenty of red meat.

Outside of opening-night remarks by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the independent Democrat who crossed party lines to endorse McCain, podium speakers included few moderate voices who could appeal to swing voters. When former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani spoke on Wednesday night, he didn't sound much like the moderate Republican who was twice elected in a Democratic stronghold. Rather, as he tore into Obama and ridiculed his resume, Giuliani came off as a snarling attack dog fixated on foreign policy. He barely touched on the economy, despite national polls showing that it long ago displaced the war in Iraq, terrorism, and national security as voters' top concern.

"I still think you don't win major campaigns if you don't talk about the number one issue, which is the economy," said a Republican pollster who asked not be identified. "The 'change' sentiment is still stronger than the 'experience' argument. And the issues that drive 'change' are helping the Democrats now. They haven't receded."

While McCain, Obama, and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Biden of Delaware, have been endlessly vetted by the press and the public, Palin is new to the national spotlight and is likely to continue to draw intense scrutiny -- and interest -- throughout the two-month dash to Election Day. Whether the first woman on a major party's ticket since 1984 will end up being more of an asset than a liability might be clearer in a few weeks after she faces Biden on Oct. 2 in the sole vice presidential debate.

"I think it's quite possible she could move Macomb County Democrats," said public opinion analyst Karlyn Bowman, referring to the famous blue-collar territory outside of Detroit that is a bastion of the conservative whites who were "Reagan Democrats." Bowman, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, said that this voting bloc is still up for grabs but agreed that the economic downturn makes it more difficult for McCain to extend the GOP's lease on the White House: "I'm still not sure ordinary Joes think Obama gets their pain, but it's a bigger problem for McCain."

Although Republicans at their national convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul acknowledged that Palin will probably continue to draw fire from Democrats and the media, their mood after her feisty -- pit bull with lipstick -- acceptance speech was hopeful, if not quite confident. "There's a feeling within the party that the wind under which Obama has sailed is dying down," said former Reagan White House speechwriter Clark Judge. "With his money and turnout machine he may yet prevail, but a new wind is blowing. And they feel it's blowing McCain's way."

Republicans are feeling considerably less upbeat about their campaign to take back Congress -- or at least to hold their ground. Recent developments in the presidential contest have not significantly changed the outlook for the congressional contests. Democrats, who won control of the House and Senate in 2006, are expected to gain additional seats. It remains unclear whether their pickups will be minimal or enough to put them firmly in charge of one or both chambers.

Senate Democrats emphasized at their party's Denver convention that they have been stymied by filibusters led by the 49 GOP senators. "We have to communicate that there now aren't enough Democratic senators to pass Barack Obama's agenda," said Matt Miller, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

As for House Democrats, many safe incumbents traveled to Denver, but the many vulnerable freshmen who must try to defend swing seats were largely missing. "Our advice to the great majority of them is to be back home with their constituents," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Your voters are at home."

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, contended that their prospects have turned around of late, although they don't go so far as to predict that they will win back either the House or the Senate. "We are in a much better position than people thought 12 or six months ago," said Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Adding Palin to McCain's ticket has boosted the morale of the Republicans' socially conservative base, Cole noted. Moreover, GOP lawmakers -- who have been hammering a "Drill here, drill now" message -- think that they are already seeing the price of gasoline turn to their political advantage.

"The issues are moving in our direction," House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., says. Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, the minority leader, agrees: "Democrats have made a lot of promises and kept none.... Americans are not impressed."

 
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