By Larry Eichel
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)
With the conventions over, the stage has been set for the final acts of the amazing 2008 presidential campaign.
And the shape of things to come seems relatively clear.
From here on, the race will be about Republicans saying that Barack Obama is not ready to lead and Democrats countering that John McCain offers more of the same.
It'll be about whether the Republicans, with their groundbreaking vice presidential candidate, can now credibly claim to be the true agents of change.
About a political landscape — a worrisome economy, high energy prices, and an ongoing war, all tied to an unpopular president — that continues to tilt Democratic.
How those elements play out in the next eight weeks, against a set of battleground states in which Pennsylvania stands front and center, will go a long way toward determining who becomes the 44th president of the United States.
The experience argument remains central for McCain, even though he undercut his position somewhat by picking someone, in Alaska's Sarah Palin, who has been a governor less than two years.
McCain's supporters say their man has been preparing his whole life to be commander-in-chief, while Obama's executive credentials are nonexistent.
Obama and the Democrats counter that the Republican nominee, for all his talk of being a maverick, has voted with the Bush administration 90 percent of the time and failed to set a new course in his acceptance speech Thursday night.
Which gets to the Republicans' effort to be seen as the party of change.
In his speech, McCain used the word "change" time and time again. The concept is personified in his running mate, he says, and by the solutions-oriented, bipartisan approach he would bring to Washington.
"We need to change the way government does almost everything," McCain said in his speech.
But analysts say it's hard for a party in power to get voters to buy it as an agent of change, particularly when the presidential nominee has been in Washington for 26 years.
The Democrats are offering new policy approaches (which the Republicans say are old, discredited big-government proposals) and a candidate who, as the first black nominee of a major party, embodies change in a huge way.
Said Obama last week: "The essential question of this campaign is who's got a better plan, a better agenda to move this country forward and fundamentally change it from the economic and foreign policy failures that we've seen over the last eight years."
At the very least, McCain's selection of Palin has energized the Republican base and made party activists feel better about Republican prospects, thereby reducing the so-called "enthusiasm gap" with the Democrats.
Polls show that the race has tightened since the Palin selection. Obama now leads by an average of 2 or 3 percentage points, which is pretty much where the race was before the Democratic convention.
Even so, analysts say, nothing that happened in the last two weeks, in Denver or St. Paul, has changed the underlying fundamentals of this election.
"The Democrats begin with such a huge structural advantage," Thomas Mann, senior policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank with Democratic leanings, said last week. "We have no experience in American politics in returning a party under such adverse circumstances."
This contest remains close for several reasons.
One is the experience factor, not so much McCain's wealth of it at age 72 as Obama's relative lack of it at 47. The freshness that makes Obama seem so attractive to many voters makes him scary and unsettling to others, particularly those who are older.
Another is the nature of McCain, who might be the only sort of Republican who could keep this race close.
"McCain is a conservative Republican, but he's never been a partisan Republican leader," said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman from Minnesota. "People are unhappy about the circumstances of the country. But it's not clear they want to go substantially to the left."
Either Obama or McCain could win. If there is a consensus among nonpartisan analysts, it is that a big McCain victory is the least likely outcome.
Their favored historical analogy remains the election of 1980, with Obama in the role of Ronald Reagan and McCain as President Jimmy Carter, even though the parties were reversed and Carter, unlike McCain, was the incumbent.
That year, all of the underlying elements — including high inflation, American hostages in Iran, and a very unpopular president — looked as if they should produce a win for the challenger. But the national polls remained tight until after the final week of the campaign and the one debate of that campaign season.
In the debate, Reagan managed to overcome the doubts among many swing voters, otherwise eager to punish the incumbent party, about his lack of foreign-policy experience. The race broke decisively in his favor, and he won by nearly 10 percentage points.
Whether that happens for Obama this time remains to be seen. But strategists on both sides agree that the three forthcoming debates have the potential to be more significant than presidential debates have been for a long time, given the candidates' differences in age and experience, policy and style.
There's no reason to expect any big shift in the race, if there is to be one, until after the debate season, which begins Sept. 26 and ends Oct. 15.
"I think this election is going to be won or lost in the campaign itself," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
And a race on track to produce a historical first — either the first black man as number one or the first woman as number two — surely must have a few more surprises in store.
(c) 2008, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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