Forget the issues of race, all the money and maybe even the economy and Iraq. The 2008 campaign might well come down to a single question: Can Barack Obama take a punch?
We're about to find out, because John McCain's team seems to have concluded that the GOP nominee can win only by beating up on Obama. To judge from the last two weeks, McCain is following Leo Durocher's warning that "nice guys finish last."
Not that he has much choice.
Although almost all the national horse-race polls show a virtual tie, underlying voter sentiment still tilts heavily toward Obama in key measures of appeal. His advantages add up to a charisma gap that McCain, the "wrinkly, white-haired guy" in Paris Hilton's memorable words, can never hope to close.
The gap is captured in a recent Time magazine poll. Asked which man they found more likable, voters picked Obama in a landslide, 65% to 20%. That doesn't mean they will vote for him, but it does mean McCain has a tough sell if he wants to be the man Americans invite into their living rooms every day for the next four years.
Savvy GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who says he has never seen results of the "likability" question so lopsided, believes the issue can determine victory because it usually predicts which way the 10% or so of voters who aren't locked into partisan choices will break. From JFK over Nixon to George Bush over John Kerry, Rollins cites a history of winners who scored better than their opponents in what television execs call the "q factor."
Less hard science than "American Idol," the "q factor" seeks to quantify how well someone on camera connects to the audience.
Ultimately, it measures an emotional connection that, in recent times, has usually worked to Republican advantage, especially among swing voters who decide close contests. But Obama has so captured the cultural and political moment that, combined with the tarnished GOP brand, he enjoys an enormous electoral potential.
Most Americans like him, in part because of the sharp contrasts with McCain, who is a wooden speaker at best and a dour-looking scold much of the time. Other measures of appeal in the Time survey also favor Obama. He is seen as the real change candidate by 61% to 17%, and he scores 48% to McCain's 35% on who better understands voters' concerns.
The result is that the kitchen-sink strategy is McCain's only real option. Or, as Rollins puts it, Obama is like the new car that almost everybody wants. "McCain's challenge is to put a few dents and scratches in it, maybe spill a little coffee on the seats while reminding voters the reliable old jalopy is sitting in the garage," Rollins says.
It's the point McCain keeps hammering home in his stump speeches and ads, framing the race as a referendum on Obama with the tag line, "Is Obama ready to lead?"
Already there have been dividends, with the Democrat stalling in most polls and McCain inching up. Most important, Obama didn't get a lasting bounce after he clinched the nomination in June and has actually slipped a few points.
A similar approach worked for Hillary Clinton at the end of her primary battle with Obama. Her ad featuring a red phone ringing at 3 a.m. in the White House was a harsher way of making the point McCain has been making with a mocking tone: Obama is a lightweight who can't be trusted. Clinton had her own problems of likability, but still might have won if she hadn't run out of time because Obama never found an effective comeback.
The approach is not risk-free, of course, and could backfire on McCain if he comes off as too negative and thus, even less likable. In that case, voters will buy that new car and leave the jalopy in the garage.