Salena Zito

An old political adage says, “He who sets the debate wins the election.”

If the presidential election was held tomorrow, it would be hello President Barack Obama because, so far, John McCain is handing him a victory.

McCain is better than the campaign he has run so far. Most people admit that McCain is an inspirational figure – even Obama has admitted that – so why isn’t McCain telling voters where he wants to lead them?

Instead, his campaign is all about his opponent.

“He himself is reinforcing that this campaign is all about Obama,” says Democratic strategist Mark Siegel. “His ads and his message are all negatives. The problem with that is, it is driving his own negatives up as well.”

GOP strategist David Carney disagrees; he says the McCain campaign has no choice but to do what it can to bring down Obama by constantly introducing him to voters through his flaws. “There is no positive that will help McCain,” he insists.

Obama’s critics say there is no substance behind his rhetoric – but McCain’s critics and supporters alike are wondering where is the rhetoric and the substance?

They know McCain is bigger than the campaign he is running, and wonder why he is acting so small.

Siegel points to Bob Dole’s campaign against Bill Clinton in 1996, when “the message that Dole was running on against Clinton was, ‘Where is the outrage?’

“Dole had nothing positive to say,” he adds. “He came across as a snarling, angry old man and, frankly, McCain is looking snarlier, angrier and older than Dole.”

McCain is very smart; his political instincts generally are very good when he is confident and on firm ground. But they are terrible when he feels things are out of control and when he loses faith in himself or the people around him.

Today’s close opinion polls have everything to do with Obama. He has not pulled ahead of McCain because he still is an unknown, he’s black – and pollsters have not expanded their universes to include the baseline of the new black and youth voters.

Another reason the polling should offer little comfort to Republicans is that the numbers mirror 1980’s closeness between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

That race was not about Carter in the same way this race is not about McCain. Reagan’s biggest hurdle was passing the commander-in-chief test; while remaining tied with Carter, Reagan went the entire summer and into the fall passing threshold after threshold. By the end of October, it all broke Reagan’s way.

This race has that same feel to it for Obama.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.