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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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To The Public, Obama Looking Like a President

I think this is McCain's key problem right now. Here's a sample of some recent poll data.

First, Obama's net favorability is through the roof. Rasmussen has him at +13, Hotline/Diageo at +14, but others like Fox and ABC News have it at something larger than +25.

Second, most of the public polls give a sense of how the country views the candidates, and these show Obama doing very well. An overview:

-Hotline/Diageo has shown McCain's advantage on "who's most prepared to lead" vary between 3 and 8 points this week. On a question so crucial to the central logic of the McCain candidacy, this is no advantage at all.

-ABC News/WaPo shows that Obama has a +14 advantage over McCain on who's the "stronger leader." Obama has a +3 advantage on who would better handle an "unexpected major crisis."

-Fox asks an interesting question. If you had to make the "toughest decision" in your life, who would you go to? A month ago, McCain had a 16-point advantage. Now, it's -1. Fox also shows Obama with a +7 advantage on who has "better judgment."

These numbers are horrible for McCain. All of them speak to core qualities we expect a President to possess - not to mention the central premises of the McCain candidacy. Strong leader, able to handle a major crisis, somebody you'd go to for the toughest decision in your life because you know he has good judgment. Right now, that man is Barack Obama - not John McCain. This is a clear indication to me that, as of today, the country is comfortable with the idea of Obama as President. If it remains comfortable with that idea come Election Day, he will win.

This is an extraordinary turnaround. I know there is a lot of disagreement over why this has occurred. My opinion is that something like this is what happens when a major economic event fundamentally favors one candidate over the other, which is exactly what we have seen. This is a banking crisis that started at the end of an unpopular Republican administration. It's not surprising that the public's opinion of the Democratic challenger has significantly improved. Through their actions, both candidates have probably reinforced the dynamic - but those actions were largely induced by that crisis. It's easy to look cool, calm, and collected when you have the wind at your back; it's much harder when it's blowing in your face.

McCain's job over the next three weeks is to change this perception. If he is to have any chance of victory in an anti-Republican year like this, he needs to be seen as the one "ready to lead" and Obama "unready." Generally speaking, there are three ways to do this. First, he can make himself look more presidential; second, he can make Obama look less so; third, he can employ a combination of the two.

The third way is ideal, and has been done in the past. Bill Clinton did it in 1992 and 1996; George W. Bush did it in 2004. However, despite its many attempts over the last few weeks, the McCain campaign has not hit upon a strategy that does this.

-Jay Cost