Barack Obama, a famous fan of pickup basketball, must recognize his plight: It's two on one now. John McCain drafted Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the star point guard from the Wasilla Warriors, to double-team Obama.
(McCain's team doesn't care if no one guards Joe Biden, who seems to spend most of his time yelling to the media, "I'm open! I'm open!" But when he gets the ball, all he does is talk about what a great player he is and dribble in place.)
So after the halftime show of the political conventions, to strain the sports metaphor a bit further, it looks as if the change-up in strategy has Team Obama rattled and in danger of choking. Polls - the closest thing we have to a scoreboard - show that McCain, at least temporarily, has taken the lead. On Tuesday, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls showed McCain ahead by a razor-thin (and statistically meaningless) 2.9 percentage points. The USA Today-Gallup poll had McCain leading by a whopping 10 points among likely voters (and four points among registered voters), though that's almost surely an overstatement.
The McCain-Palin convention bounce also all but closed the ticket's gender gap. According to Rasmussen Reports, Obama had a 14-point lead among women; now it's three. According to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll, McCain now has a 12-point lead among white women.
Still, there's a lot of pressure on Sarah Barracuda. Called up from the political minors, she could yet wilt under the hot lights. But that's looking less and less likely.
The outrageous attacks on Palin out of the block (She banned books! She opposed family planning education! She's a creationist!) have missed the mark. And the eagerness of the mainstream media to go after her family life has backfired as well. For instance, Hanna Rosin wrote sneeringly in Slate magazine of Palin's "wreck of a home life." Would Slate say that Obama, conceived out of wedlock to a teen mom, comes from a "wreck" of a family? I somehow doubt it.
Palin's more sober critics, mostly on the right, worried that picking her would undermine McCain's claim to "experience." Almost the exact opposite has happened. Thanks to the double-team strategy, Obama has found himself in the awkward position of sounding as if he's running against the GOP's vice presidential nominee. When Obama compared his own experience to Palin's tenure as mayor of Wasilla (leaving out her current job as governor), he ran right into the pick the McCain campaign had set, leaving McCain a clearer path to victory.
The more Obama has to explain why being a community organizer - or a state legislator, or a one-term senator with few accomplishments under his belt - is better preparation for the presidency than being a mayor or governor, the more he volunteers his own shortcomings when compared with McCain.
Besides, on paper, Obama doesn't stand up very well against Palin. All of the mythic themes of Obama's political narrative - the ethics reformer, the bipartisan, the new kind of politician - look like press-release material next to Palin's accomplishments. Obama voted the Democratic Party line more often (97 percent) than McCain voted in accord with President Bush (90 percent). In Washington, Obama's supposedly "sweeping" ethics reform - which forces congressmen to eat lobbyist-provided meals standing up instead of sitting down - and his feckless reforms in Illinois make him look the Bambi to Palin's Godzilla.
Obama's idea of ethics reform is to mandate clean sheets in the brothel. Palin's is to tear it down.
The most unsportsmanlike conduct in the days to come will be the search for Palin gaffes, of which there undoubtedly will be many. The media will call fouls on her that they never call on the other candidates. Over the last week, Obama misspoke and referred to his "Muslim faith" on ABC's "This Week" and told a rally how excited he was to be in "New Pennsylvania." Perhaps that's one of the 57 states he once claimed to campaign in?
And let's not forget Biden, whose gaffes are the unavoidable byproduct of his limitless gasbaggery. Biden could shout on "Meet the Press," "Get these squirrels off of me!" and the collective response would be, "There goes Joe again." But if Palin flubs the name of the deputy agriculture minister of Kyrgyzstan, the media will blow their whistles saying she's unprepared for the job.
Fair or not, that's how it works in the pros. But so far, it still looks as if the MVP title is hers to lose.