The primaries are over. Barack Obama's European tour is over. The conventions are over. The VP selections have been made, and incredibly, this race is right back where it has been since the spring: a narrow Obama lead.
When the financial crisis overshadowed the Sarah Palin bounce, you could almost hear the race clicking back into its former position with Obama between 1 and 3 points ahead of John McCain. (Don't worry about the margin of error. With 50 polls showing the same thing, the cumulative chance of error is negligible). Except for an Obama bulge after Hillary's withdrawal and on his return from Europe, and a McCain bounce after his convention and the Palin selection, Obama has remained slightly ahead for five months.
Because the race has been in this holding pattern for so long, it will be very hard for McCain to break into the lead. He must do so in the debates and probably has to take the lead after the first contest this Friday.
If McCain can resume the lead he had held during early September, he can set a new pattern for the race. But if he fails to break through, Obama's lead will just harden all the more.
To appreciate how McCain could surge into the lead in the debates, we need to focus on what has changed about the race in the past few months. McCain has emerged from the exchange of convention oratory with a much more solid reputation for reliability and judgment than Obama has.
Remember the Fox News poll that showed voters -- by 50 percent to 34 percent -- turning to McCain, not to Obama, for advice when facing "the toughest decision of your life." And McCain, largely due to the selection of Palin, has recovered his maverick status and is no longer seen as a George W. Bush clone.
But the financial crisis has given Obama a way to recover from the beating he took when McCain chose Palin and he opted for Joe Biden. It reminds people of the mess into which they feel Bush has plunged this country and makes his message of change that much more attractive.
The debates offer McCain an opportunity to push past the recognition of the crisis and strike two themes:
-- that, as a populist, he objects to the golden parachutes offered the Wall Street executives who mismanaged their firms and required a federal bailout;
-- to warn voters of impending doom if Obama's proposed tax increases ever become law.
Obama is in a tough position. He entered the race with three issues: to end the war in Iraq, to change Washington and to restore fairness to our tax system by eliminating the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy. Now, the war in Iraq appears to have been won and Republicans get much higher marks than Democrats on which party would be most effective in dealing with the situation. With the designation of Palin, McCain has offered a credible vision of change that Obama will have a hard time disputing.
But Obama has a new problem. His campaign is based on tax proposals that may have made sense in normal times but which are distinctly dangerous now that the financial crisis is gripping America. Even a liberal would have to concede that as we watch Wall Street each day and hope and pray that more money will flow in to keep stock prices high enough to allow companies to stay alive and keep millions employed, it is no time to raise taxes on invested capital. Such measures now seem like a tax on water in the desert.
Obama can hardly back off one of the main tenets of his campaign, however. He can't say that he didn't realize that his tax proposal would be harmful in a financial crisis. He can, and has, scaled back the doubling of the capital gains tax that he proposed during the primaries and now wants only a 33 percent hike (from 15 percent to 20 percent). But, in his reflective moments, he must realize that this is the wrong tax at the wrong time.
But he is stuck with this lemon of a proposal, and McCain can use the debates to make him pay for it -- before we have to!