Perceptions are nine-tenths of reality in politics. If the voters think you're a winner, they are more likely to jump on your bandwagon. If they think you're sitting dead in the water, you're a bum, no matter how appealing your ideas might be.
That's been U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's problem. After his rock-star presidential campaign launch, the Illinois Democrat has been languishing in second place, running 20 points or more behind U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York.
Recently, though, as the clock ticks toward the casting of actual votes, Obama appears to have risen out of bum-hood and onto a roll.
What's changed? He's gone on the attack.
Or, as he puts it, he is drawing sharp contrasts and distinctions between his own positions and those of his leading opponent. The perception of decorum is important in politics, even as you quietly put on your brass knuckles.
The turning point was evident in the Oct. 30 Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. Clinton was questioned sharply, especially by Obama, the journalists' panel and former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
After exhibiting supreme confidence in the earlier debates, Clinton sounded evasive and even self-contradictory on key issues in Philadelphia. Afterward, even she admitted that she had fallen off her game.
A good example was her awkward wavering on whether she supported granting driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. She seemed to be trying to support the idea in principle, but not necessarily in practice. Obama has since made a theme of criticizing Clinton as lacking honesty, candor and consistency. Clinton countercharges pointedly that Obama lacks experience.
A revealing exchange began in Iowa when Obama said that his relatives in Kenya and his international upbringing allow him to view the world with more understanding than most of his challengers.
In a later Iowa appearance, Clinton responded like a seasoned veteran putting a young upstart in his place. "Now voters will judge whether living in a foreign country at the age of 10 prepares one to face the big, complex international challenges the next president will face," she said. "I think we need a president with more experience than that."
But Obama should be delighted. Attacks from your political rivals can be the sincerest form of flattery. Front-runners usually don't make pointed jabs at rivals unless they think they have a real fight on their hands. Besides, knowledgeable observers noted that Clinton was stepping on shaky ground in boasting foreign policy expertise. She was a first lady, after all, not a secretary of state.
Adding to Obama's perception of momentum is a new ABC News/Washington Post poll released last week. The poll is the first in which Obama has scored a higher percentage than Clinton in Iowa, where the Jan. 3 precinct caucuses will formally launch the 2008 presidential race.
Obama's lead in the ABC/Post poll is within the survey's margin of error, pollsters caution, which means he and Clinton remain in the statistical dead heat in Iowa that they have been in since at least mid-summer. More ominous for Clinton is the apparent shift in what Iowa Democrats say they are seeking in a candidate. A majority in the new poll favor "new direction and new ideas" over "strength and experience" by 55 percent to 33 percent. A July ABC/Post poll found the ratio was 49 percent to 39 percent. Suddenly the lock that Clinton seemed to have on the nomination appears to have come unlocked.
The new battle of perceptions between Obama and Clinton is one of "honesty" versus "experience," in the Iowa poll. Even among Iowa's women, who have been more supportive of Clinton than Iowa's men, 30 percent believe Obama is more "honest and trustworthy," while just 18 percent say that for Clinton. For Obama, Iowa has turned from lackluster into a love fest.
Yet, it's a cautious fest. Even an emphasis on honest, candid "hard truths" can backfire. Sometimes candidates have been a little too honest. Walter Mondale comes to mind with his famous declaration in his 1984 Democratic convention speech: "Mr. Reagan will raise taxes, and so will I. He won't tell you. I just did." Mondale lost in November because some people, to quote an old movie line, "can't handle the truth."
Obama appears to know better than to hand damaging sound bites to his rivals that easily.
At least, that's my perception.