A few weeks back, Time magazine was musing that John McCain was in danger of sliding from “a long shot” to a “no-shot.” Around the same time, a hard-nosed former Hillary Clinton insider declared the race “effectively over” thanks to the McCain campaign’s ineptitude, the tanking U.S. economy and Obama’s advantages in cash, charisma and hope. And Obama, up by three to six points nationally, was about to leverage a much-anticipated trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and Europe into a pre-convention poll surge.
Instead, his supporters are now suffering a pre-Denver panic attack, watching as John McCain draws incrementally closer in state and national polls – with Rasmussen’s most recent daily national tracker showing a statistical dead heat.
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has been privately enumerating her doubts about Obama to supporters, according to people who have spoken with her. Clinton’s pollster Mark Penn recently unveiled a PowerPoint presentation red-flagging Obama’s lukewarm leads among white female voters and Hispanics – while predicting a five-point swing could turn a presumed Obama win into a McCain landslide.
“It’s not that people think McCain will win – it’s that they are realizing that McCain could win,” says Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown, whose surveys show tight races in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. “This election is about Barack Obama — not John McCain — it’s about whether Barack Obama passes muster. Every poll shows that people want a Democratic president, the problem is they’re not sure they want Barack Obama.”
The campaign’s confidence may turn out to be justified but two weeks prior to the national convention there are more than a few worrisome signs for Obama. Here are seven:
1. Race. “The idea that Obama was going to win in a blowout was always preposterous,” says former Nebraska senator and onetime presidential hopeful Bob Kerrey, an Obama backer. “A big piece of this, of course, is whether white people are going to support a black guy… If [Obama] is a tall, skinny white guy named Paul Jones it’s a different story.”
2. Obama’s strength in Virginia may be overhyped. His chances of ending the Democrats 44-year losing streak in the commonwealth are pretty good – thanks to the explosive growth of the liberal D.C. suburbs, and a 147,000 spike in voter registration sure to benefit Democrats. But Obama’s aides privately concede his odds in Virginia are probably no better than 50-50 and that the state is far from a lock-solid hedge if he loses Ohio and Florida.
3. Michigan’s in play for McCain. In the year of the downturn, the hard-hit upper Midwest should be prime Obama country. Instead it’s a potential minefield. Obama is still ahead by two to five points here – similar to margins of victory enjoyed by Gore and Kerry in the last two presidential contests– but McCain has quietly crept up over the past month and could vault ahead if he anoints ex-Gov. Mitt Romney. Simmering tensions between predominantly-black Detroit and its white suburbs could hurt Obama. And McCain’s surrogates were handed a gift in the jailing of Obama supporter Kwame Kilpatrick, Detroit’s mayor.
4. Bad times could be good for McCain. If anger helps Democrats, fear advantages Republicans. A growing number of Democratic strategists worry that some swing state voters may opt for McCain if the economy veers from merely awful to downright terrifying. The typical political calculus – that bad economic times will deliver the White House to Democrats – may not hold if people start viewing the downturn as, essentially, a national security crisis that can’t be entrusted to a novice. And that was McCain’s underlying message in his Paris Hilton ad: Bank failures, soaring gas prices and plummeting house values are forms of economic terrorism and he’s an all-purpose anti-terror warrior.
5. Where have you gone, Ross Perot? Bill Clinton, the lone two-term Democratic president since FDR, wouldn’t have been elected if independent Ross Perot hadn’t siphoned 19 percent of the vote in 1992. Former Georgia Rep. Bob Barr, staging an indie bid from McCain’s right, has little cash and doesn’t seem to be a factor in competitive states.
6. The Legacy of LBJ, Jimmy and Bubba. Barack Obama would have been a trailblazer no matter what – but the Democrats’ trail to the White House has been remarkably narrow since 1960, accommodating only southern whites with border-state strength: Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. (Add Al Gore if you’re counting the popular vote.)
7. Americans may want divided government. Some Democratic operatives think a possible landslide for their party in congressional races could backfire on Obama.
“Fairly or not, folks think he’s pretty liberal and nobody wants a pair of Pelosi’s running things,” says a New York-based Democratic consultant.