Robert Novak

The trick is for Obama to distance himself from the rhetoric while holding to the theory, as restructured in last week's debate: "Yes, (the American people) are in part frustrated and angry" by "manufactured" issues. Indeed, he said, beating "to death" this issue is "not helping that person ... trying to figure out how to pay the bills at the end of the month."

Clinton's effort to brand Obama as elitist has failed to move the polls, probably because Democratic primary voters agree with Frank. Nevertheless, Democratic pros feel that the San Francisco incident halted an Obama surge in Pennsylvania that might have won him the state and ended Clinton's campaign tomorrow. What really worries them, however, is the impact on independents and Republicans who had been entranced by the young man from Chicago. Now, they wonder whether the appealing unifier is really a divider.

Obama is trying to change the subject, but he lost his cool demeanor when ABC News questioners Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos returned to his San Francisco statement (among other difficult issues) in Wednesday's debate. In watching campaign debates dating back to Kennedy-Nixon in 1960, I never before had seen a candidate criticize the moderator or challenge his premises so often (on at least eight occasions). "Look, let me finish my point here, Charlie," said Obama, after Gibson had interrupted him following a 126-word answer.

The other unprecedented element was the deluge of abuse heaped on the two ABC moderators by reporters on the media, television critics and political writers. They object to prolonging what amounts to a debate on "What's wrong with Obama?" Exploring whether Barack Obama is a modified Thomas Frank does not depend on television talking heads or Hillary Clinton. Supporters of John McCain, seeking to reel back the Obama Republicans, will press the issue from now to November.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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