Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Sen. John McCain faces not one but two opponents in this election: freshman Sen. Barack Obama and the U.S. economy.

Polls show McCain in a virtual dead heat against the Illinois lawmaker who is a youthful and eloquent-speaking candidate with zero experience in statecraft, legislative deal making and free-market economics. But the glib Chicago Democrat has the ability to persuade and inspire, and the political and economic climate this year favors the Democrats.

The economy, though, may be McCain's tougher opponent. He is in a race with its recovery, hoping the economy turns upward in the next five months, and praying that it will arrive in time to rob the Democrats of their strongest issue long before Election Day.

Right now, the economic landscape is mixed, showing some signs of faint recovery in places but weaknesses in others. We are not in a real recession -- the economy is still growing and showing some signs of strength.

Nationally, the economy is expanding at 0.9 percent, and it is expected to grow by perhaps 2 percent or more in the second half. Unemployment, a lagging indicator, jumped to 5.5 percent from 5.1 percent in May, rattling the stock market and giving Democrats more ammo to fire at McCain's candidacy.

A gallon of regular gasoline is more than $4 in many parts of the country, squeezing consumers' pocketbooks, the financial sector is still struggling with the credit crunch, while a still ailing housing market looms over the economy with unsold inventory and falling home values.

A CNN/Opinion Research poll reported Friday that when they asked 1,035 Americans what was their most important issue in the presidential election, 42 percent said the economy. The war in Iraq, which seems to be improving every week, has fallen to second place at 24 percent.

Americans are gloomier than ever about the economy, with 87 percent saying it is getting worse. But the question is, worse than what? Worse than the 1981 to 1983 recession when the unemployment rate was more than 10 percent?

By historical standards, 5.5 percent unemployment is relatively low and by many economic standards is considered full employment.

When President Reagan was running for re-election in 1984 on an optimistic "morning in America" campaign heralding the economy's comeback, the jobless rate was a bleak 7.4 percent. But he won in a landslide, carrying 49 states.

"Right now, I think the economy is in neutral. Half of the indicators are looking positive, and half are looking negative. There's a heck of a lot of economic stimulus kicking around, so it's possible the economy might rebound by the fall," said Kevin Hassett, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior adviser to the McCain campaign.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.