If you read, watch and hear the media describe the campaign of 2008, it appears to be the most one-sided contest since Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale in 1984. John McCain always comes across as borderline senile, lethargic, and pitiful while Barack Obama is awash in media heroics and theatrical flourishes.
But the race is still basically tied according to the polls.
While Obama has gotten a four point bounce, according to the latest Rasmussen poll, from his European trip and the adulatory response of the left-leaning German crowds, the two candidates have been within one or two points of each other for the past three weeks.
Never has the disjuncture between coverage and reality loomed quite so large as it does in this race. You get one image from the media and a totally different one from the polling.
Behind this gap between perception and reality lies the more fundamental reality: Voters are worried about Obama. Recent national polls show Obama with just a 40% favorable ratio among white voters. He is clearly hitting up against some substantial sales resistance, particularly among middle aged and older white women.
Obama went to Europe as a steak seeking to recover his sizzle. The absence of weekly teleprompter victory speeches in primary contests has sapped some of the enthusiasm his candidacy generated all spring. But, for a more sustained bounce, he went abroad to hype his ratings as a potential commander-in-chief and his standing as a foreign policy expert.
But clearly Obama is a domestic policy candidate. Overall, he can only win if foreign issues do not intrude unduly in the election campaign. Any reminder of foreign concerns, the war on terror, Iraq, or Iran, serves to undermine his ability to win. Never has there been a clearer fact than that McCain is better able to handle a foreign policy crisis, just as Bush was more prepared in 1992 to do so than was Bill Clinton. Then, as now, the Democrat could only win if foreign affairs stayed on the periphery of the campaign.
But will they? Will Iran remain on a back burner as rumors of an impending Israeli or American military strike mount? Will Iraq stay off the front pages even though more than 100,000 American troops are at risk there? Will al Qaeda remain off balance and off the front pages?
Lately, it has become fashionable for McCain backers to complain about his seeming lethargy and the weakness of his campaign. Some extrapolate into speculation about his ability to handle the job of president. But, as delighted as the media is to fan such speculation, the fact is that he's not running a bad race. He's basically still tied and he has Obama on the defensive on the Iraq war issue, quite an achievement in itself.
Make no mistake about it, no matter how adulatory the media coverage of Obama gets, this race is still up for grabs and Obama has been unable to put it away. Sure McCain needs to step up his attacks and must pin Obama down on his flips and his flops. But even so, give credit where it is due — it is very unusual, in this sycophantic media atmosphere, for McCain to be running even with Obama this late in the game.