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Colin Powell vs. Joe the Plumber

The presidential debates are behind us and two of the most revered figures in American politics -- Joe the Plumber and Colin Powell -- have split on their choice of candidates. The race has narrowed, but Barack Obama remains in the lead. Is there time for John McCain to catch him? And more importantly, do American care more about what Joe or Colin has to say?

The national polls show a spread in the five percentage point range. That's a significant improvement for McCain from earlier in the month when Obama's lead was over eight percent. Some combination of the final presidential debate, the settling of the financial markets to their new "normal" low, and the heightened contrast between the candidates' economic messages has assisted John McCain.

As for the economy, Joe the Plumber has greatly aided the McCain campaign, which on its own had been struggling to transform this into an election about "choice" rather than an election about "change or four more years of George W. Bush." McCain is now clearly sounding the message: Barack Obama is about wealth re-distribution ("spreading the wealth") while he is about wealth creation. So long as Obama maintains a tax hike as part of his agenda -- even in a recession -- this is a potent theme, especially for voters who recall that Bill Clinton promised, but never delivered on, a middle class tax cut.

Moreover, the media treatment of Joe the Plumber has rekindled the same anger and hostility toward the media first seen when Sarah Palin received the once over from the mainstream media and the Democrats. It's the same sneering at the little guy, the same dismissive attitude, and the same effort to throw every bit of dirt they can dig up -- all on full display.

As Byron York noted, at a weekend McCain campaign event in Virginia: "There was real anger at this rally, but it wasn't, as some erroneous press reports from other McCain rallies have suggested, aimed at Obama. It was aimed at the press." That anger is a powerful motivator for many conservatives to get to the polls.

As for the Powell endorsement, the media swooned and assured us that this was a significant development. Among conservative commentators, it did not escape notice that Powell praised the surge ("We now see that things are a lot better in Iraq. Maybe if we had put a surge in in the beginning, it would've been a lot better.") just after he endorsed its most virulent critic. (Powell himself had criticized the surge in December 2006, so in that regard McCain is the only one of the three to get that decision right.)

Rush Limbaugh and others were more biting and suggested the endorsement was a function of identity politics. Still other observers suggested Powell's move was either sweet revenge directed at the GOP or a play for the accolades of elite opinion makers.

Whatever the rationale for Powell's endorsement, it remains to be seen if there is some segment of the undecided electorate (generally white working-class voters) that will respond to this move, or alternatively some portion of McCain voters who will be so assured by Powell's endorsement that they feel comfortable switching sides.

The last two weeks of the race come down to message and turnout. On the message front (George H.W. called it "the vision thing"), McCain seems finally to have hit his stride. His pitch is simple: the recession will get worse with an Obama agenda of higher taxes, big spending, protectionism, and at best lukewarm interest in domestic oil and gas development. He even uses the "s" word -- socialism.  Conversely, he presents himself as the reformer with a low tax, budget freezing, and pro-drilling agenda.

Almost as noteworthy is what isn't on the McCain radar screen. McCain has, for all intents and purposes, abandoned any serious effort to go after Obama on his bizarre associations with leftwing groups, convicted felons and ex-terrorists, although his campaign continues to send out press releases and conduct media calls on ACORN's involvement in coast-to-coast voter registration fraud. Foreign policy had likewise receded from the scene, a remarkable turnabout from earlier in the campaign, until Joe Biden's mega-gaffe on Sunday suggesting that Obama supporters should be prepared not only for the new president to have his "mettle" tested but for the situation where it is "not gonna be apparent that we're right."

Meanwhile, Palin continues to thrill the base. She talks about social issues and ACORN and makes the pitch that small town and rural voters have been overlooked and scorned by the Democrats and their elite MSM allies. And instead of trying to work with the enemy, the McCain camp is now showing her off to that constituency via the conservative media.

Between now and election day Obama's task is simple: guard against complacency and continue to bang the drum that McCain=Bush. In this he is greatly aided by a phenomenal, record-breaking fundraising haul of $150M in September. Only a few MSM pundits dared remark that if it had been a Republican reneging on his promise to accept public financing and then tried to "buy the election,' the backlash would be fierce.

Judging from the last couple of days, the MSM media seems more impressed by the Powell endorsement than voters do. The "Joe the Plumber" bump in the polls for McCain which began in earnest with last week's debate seems, for now, to have exceeded the Powell bump.

But the challenge remains a daunting one for McCain. He trails in national polls and a series of state polls and is being vastly outspent on last minute campaign ads. Is there time for him to pull it out?

Nancy Pelosi says the election is over.

Conservatives beg to differ. The voters will settle the matter in two weeks. One surprising ray of hope for McCain: with the most unpopular president and the worst economy in generations he remains in the thick of the race. That alone tells us something about voters' comfort level with his opponent.