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How McCain Has Tightened the Race

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So, John McCain has pulled ahead in the most recent monthly Reuters / Zogby poll. Why? I think there are two reasons.

The lesser reason first: The crisis in Georgia brought the whole “3 a.m. phone call” scenario into clear focus. Obama initially seemed like he just wished the situation would go away. McCain took the matter head-on. Whether or not McCain’s approach is the best doesn’t really matter. What I think matters to many voters is that he seemed eager and willing to act decisively while Obama was on vacation in Hawaii. Bad timing for that vacation.

Now, the major reason: The celebrity attack ads have had some effect because they turn Obama’s greatest strength, his charisma, into a liability. The breathless media coverage of Obama’s foreign tour made him look presumptuous. The Berlin crowd in particular made him look more like an international rock star than a man you can trust with serious matters (not saying that’s an accurate portrayal, just an easy perception for some voters to come away with).

Obama overplayed his celebrity and McCain hit him on it. It doesn’t even matter that McCain himself has eagerly cultivated celebrity for years – it matters that McCain has positioned himself as the “serious” candidate and is making Obama seem like a lightweight.

Clinton tried the same “he’s not ready” attack against Obama, but the Democratic nomination process is as much about ground game as it is about messaging and Clinton failed in the trenches. McCain doesn’t have to work the trenches to score well in these polls.

Nevertheless, I expect Obama to close the gap and even regain the lead. One of the interesting factoids of the Zogby poll is that only 74% of Democrats are supporting Obama (a 9 percent drop from last month) as compared to 81% of Republicans who support McCain. I think Obama has a lot better chance of rallying cautious Democrats who worry about his credentials than McCain does in rallying Republicans who view him as an apostate.

Time will tell…