It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Presidential Race

Both of the parties' political conventions are behind us, a financial crisis is upon us, a new vice-presidential nominee has entered the race (to be savaged, interviewed, and unleashed on the campaign trail to enliven her conservative base), and Election Day is less than fifty days away. Where are we and where are we going?

The race, if you look at national polls, is essentially tied. But those polls may be even less predictive than usual. The great wild cards are voter identification (which appears to be moving dramatically in the Republicans' favor) and turnout (which was thought to be a huge Democratic advantage but may be neutralized in part by Governor Sarah Palin). What we can say for sure is that the race is very, very close. The closest analogy may be 2000 or 2004, where the popular vote was "within the margin of error" and the electoral vote came down to a key swing state. If the Democrats expected they would win this in a cakewalk or that defeat was out of the realm of possibility, they have gotten a disturbing wake-up call.

Although John McCain has pulled into a virtual tie, pundits will differ as to why. Is it purely the excitement generated by Palin? Or was his Convention speech a decisive step, a turning point in which McCain was able to convince voters that he really is the "change" and "maverick" candidate he has been pitching who might overcome voters' reluctance to return a Republican to the White House. There is some support for the latter, as polling shows McCain scores better on that issue now than earlier in the campaign and is competitive with Barack Obama on "change." That's as startling as a poll that would show the candidates to be competitive on national security.

But it is external events which have shaken the race and may continue to do so. That occurred this summer when, after Russia invaded Georgia, Obama equivocated and McCain reasserted himself as the experienced and savvy national security guru. He got his "3 a.m." moment and made the most of it.

Now, of course, we see the financial meltdown rock the economy and the race. Initially it might seem to bolster Obama who can ramp up his tale of woe about the George Bush-John McCain-Herbert Hoover economy and lash McCain for our current ills. But the crisis provides an opening for McCain on several fronts.

First, Obama has chosen to go starkly negative with ads on everything from a bald-faced smear tying McCain to Rush Limbaugh to a bizarre ad attacking McCain for not using a computer (his war injuries actually prevent him from using a keyboard but he is among the most computer-knowledgeable campaigners). The question remains whether, especially in a crisis, the key Independent voters will recoil from this display of nasty, old-style politics.

Second, Obama hasn't really risen to the occasion on substance and wouldn't even reveal on the day after the AIG take-over whether he supported the move. Is this another instance of excessive caution, indecision, and just plain unpreparedness to act in the role of a chief executive? Obama simply hasn't yet sold himself as the one to lead in troubling times.