Odds-On Favorite, Maybe Not

Linda Chavez

7/25/2008 12:01:00 AM - Linda Chavez

The professional odds-makers favor Barack Obama two-to-one to win the election. It's no wonder. Americans overwhelmingly believe the country is on the wrong track. They can't stand the current Republican occupant of the White House. The economy is weak and shows little sign of getting significantly stronger before the election. The country is fighting an unpopular war. And Obama, as he reminds us every time he opens his mouth, is all about "change."

So why hasn't Obama closed the deal? Most national polls show Obama ahead -- but by margins so thin it can hardly give comfort to the putative front-runner. The latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll of registered voters puts Obama up only six points overall, while the more reliable polls of likely voters -- the Rasmussen tracking poll and the ABC/Washington Post poll -- put it at a statistical tie within the margin of error. And Obama is losing his advantage in key battleground states.

A new Quinnipiac poll of likely voters for the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal found Obama losing eight points over his previous poll numbers a month earlier in Minnesota, dropping five points in Colorado and two points in both Michigan and Wisconsin. McCain has pulled ahead of Obama in Colorado, is within the margin of error in Minnesota, and is in striking distance in Michigan. Of the four key states, only in Wisconsin, where Obama's numbers went down slightly but McCain's didn't go up, is Obama comfortably ahead of McCain by 11 points.

Perhaps most surprising is that Obama has been getting nonstop media attention over the past week with his high-profile visits to the Middle East and Europe. No presidential candidate of either party has been treated to such fawning coverage in the past, with network anchors accompanying them on their overseas trips and cameras everywhere to capture the candidate in formal and informal settings. An amnesiac tuning in might be forgiven for assuming the election had already taken place as he watched Obama sitting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who seemed to all but endorse Obama's plan for removing American troops within 16 months (before the Iraqi leader decided to hedge his bets a bit by denying he'd said any such thing).

And then there were the pictures of Obama addressing throngs of more than 100,000 adoring Germans -- who, judging from the applause differentials when he mentioned his parents' disparate backgrounds, were far more enthusiastic about Obama's African than his American heritage.

Yet despite the sycophantic media frenzy, average Americans aren't yet convinced Obama's "change" is what they need. When it comes to identifying with the candidates' values, far more likely voters in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 58 percent, say they could identify with John McCain's background and values than with Obama's, 47 percent. And when it comes to their assessment of his knowledge and experience or his ability to be commander in chief, Obama's deficits in voters' minds are so great it's hard to imagine he can ever reassure them. Only 19 percent said he was the more knowledgeable and experienced candidate, and only one in four said he would make a better commander in chief.

Obama's decision to leave American shores this week in order to burnish his credentials was supposed to fix these problems, but it could backfire. John Kerry tried to convince voters that since the Europeans liked him more than George W. Bush, America would be better off electing him, only to find that sentiment didn't resonate on Election Day. If Obama can't outscore his opponent on the home court, he's not likely to win any points overseas.

Americans have seen far more of Obama than McCain in the last year, but they still aren't sure they know or fully trust him. The nonpartisan Project for Excellence in Journalism found that Obama has led campaign coverage in 78 percent of stories since he clinched the nomination. The McCain campaign has even taken to mocking the obsequious attention the media have bestowed in an amusing web video featuring Frankie Valli's "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and clips of MSNBC's Chris Matthews telling viewers he fills "this thrill going up my leg" when Obama speaks.

Still, the election should be Obama's to lose. And he may yet convince voters to put aside any misgivings they have, but it's not clear how he is going to do it.