Some of my Chicago friends who support Sen. Barack Obama already are speaking as if his victory is a done deal. I hate to burst their bubbles, but a nagging question still haunts Obama euphoria: Why isn't he further ahead in the polls?
After all, they gush, his superbly managed campaign of "hope" and "change" seems to be humming along, as strong as the euro against the dollar. The popularity of his rival Sen. John McCain's Republican brand is as weak as a subprime mortgage.
Yet after running as much as nine points ahead of McCain in major polls, Obama's lead has mostly evaporated, especially in key Midwestern industrial swing states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Why?
I think a big reason is McCain's refusal to be scary or outrageous enough.
Although he has yet to win the hearts and minds of his party's conservative base, Republicans could hardly have picked a better candidate in this, their hour of woe. He has maintained enough of his maverick image to resist Democratic efforts to re-brand him as Bush's third term.
Sure, his policies have flip-flopped like the political equivalent of Twister. But Obama has sashayed toward the political middle, too. That's what candidates do in general election campaigns, especially in the dog days of summer. Voters start paying closer attention in the fall. That leaves time for a lot of late-summer dancing.
A second big reason we journalists love to cite is advisors. McCain hired Steve Schmidt, a protege of Karl Rove who has introduced Rove's famous brand of hardball attacks at Obama's perceived weak points: Suddenly we see Obama's charisma recast as empty-headed "celebrity." His freshness is remade into inexperience. His seriousness is recast as hubris and arrogance. His empathy is recast as "elitist."
Sen. Hillary Clinton tried much of this during the primaries. It didn't put her over the top, but it kept her in the race, especially with white working-class voters over age 50. Boomers and older voters have been less enamored of Obama than the young and college-educated. McCain, too, has gotten back into the race, judging by the polls, just in time to wage a competitive campaign in the fall.
How much of an obstacle is Obama's biracial background? That's hard to say in a society that long ago rendered "racist" to be as much of a taboo word among whites as the N-word is among blacks. As a result, a lot of us look for any sign of coded racial appeals and our imaginations run wild. Some see racism in the juxtaposition of two blondes Britney Spears and Paris Hilton in a McCain ad attacking Obama's "celebrity. Republican analyst David Gergen sees the "arrogant" charge against Obama as new racial code for the old-South label "uppity." It does have a familiar ring, doesn't it?
Reporter Amy Chozick in a Wall Street Journal essay stirred up a lot of pundit and blogger buzz by musing that Obama's skinny physique might be a disadvantage in our notoriously overweight nation. She cited a memo to reporters by McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Explaining McCain's recent attack ad that tries to paint Obama as an empty-suit celebrity, Davis' memo mentions, "Only celebrities like Barack Obama go to the gym three times a day." Gee, thanks for giving me a new excuse to skip my workout, Rick.
Smelling a rat or maybe fat Timothy Noah responded in the Web magazine Slate that skinniness might be a code word for black. "This physical attribute looms large in our nation's history as a source of prejudice," he writes. If so, I wonder if might there be new hope in the sex appeal department for us guys who sport Tony Soprano physiques? Somehow I think not.
Racist or not, we have learned this much from Obama's campaign: Any day in which race is the big topic of discussion is not a good day for Obama. His rapid rise benefited ironically from his ability to "transcend race," we have been told repeatedly. That's another way of saying that he seemed to offer Americans a way to reduce race to something that would not matter anymore. Americans want to believe that race doesn't matter and apparently we will only believe it if we hear a black person say it.
Race alone does not explain Obama's polling gap. Had Colin Powell run, with his military background and other experience, he would not have had the same problems persuading undecided voters that Obama has faced. Obama's best remedy may come from his choice of a running mate. I don't know whom he will pick, but I have a feeling that no skinny, black Harvard grads need apply. I'm sure they will understand why.