The primaries are over. Barack Obama's European tour is over. The conventions are over. The VP selections have been made, and incredibly, this race is right back where it has been since the spring: a narrow Obama lead.
When the financial crisis overshadowed the Sarah Palin bounce, you could almost hear the race clicking back into its former position with Obama between 1 and 3 points ahead of John McCain. (Don't worry about the margin of error. With 50 polls showing the same thing, the cumulative chance of error is negligible). Except for an Obama bulge after Hillary's withdrawal and on his return from Europe, and a McCain bounce after his convention and the Palin selection, Obama has remained slightly ahead for five months.
Because the race has been in this holding pattern for so long, it will be very hard for McCain to break into the lead. He must do so in the debates and probably has to take the lead after the first contest this Friday.
If McCain can resume the lead he had held during early September, he can set a new pattern for the race. But if he fails to break through, Obama's lead will just harden all the more.
To appreciate how McCain could surge into the lead in the debates, we need to focus on what has changed about the race in the past few months. McCain has emerged from the exchange of convention oratory with a much more solid reputation for reliability and judgment than Obama has.
Remember the Fox News poll that showed voters -- by 50 percent to 34 percent -- turning to McCain, not to Obama, for advice when facing "the toughest decision of your life." And McCain, largely due to the selection of Palin, has recovered his maverick status and is no longer seen as a George W. Bush clone.
But the financial crisis has given Obama a way to recover from the beating he took when McCain chose Palin and he opted for Joe Biden. It reminds people of the mess into which they feel Bush has plunged this country and makes his message of change that much more attractive.
The debates offer McCain an opportunity to push past the recognition of the crisis and strike two themes:
-- that, as a populist, he objects to the golden parachutes offered the Wall Street executives who mismanaged their firms and required a federal bailout;
-- to warn voters of impending doom if Obama's proposed tax increases ever become law.