Thursday, October 30, 2008

The View from the Middle

Where I live, the presidential election is settled. Barack Obama is poised to carry California by the widest margin in state history. The latest Field Poll gives him a 22-point lead over John McCain here, and if that holds, he will not only fare even better than former Governor and favorite son Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, but he will also surpass the record 18-point victory posted by LBJ in his 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater.

But I have traveled all across the country during this campaign, and I know that Californians are not necessarily representative. I have talked with voters in 13 states, including battlegrounds North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado and Nevada. Many of them have a completely different view of the candidates, and of this election.

In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Democrat Jeannette Potteiger told me about her father, a lifelong Democrat who hasn't actually voted since 1972. This time, he's voting - for John McCain. Why? "He wants to vote against Obama," she told me. "Because Obama's black." Some of her friends in Milwaukee feel the same way. "They've actually told me they would never vote for a black man, so they're voting for McCain. It makes no sense, because they completely disagree with McCain on the issues, and they agree with Obama. It's sad, actually."

Nick Weinberger of Columbus, Wisconsin has encountered some of the same racism. He's a Republican who will vote for McCain. He scoffs at Obama's roots as a community organizer. "Come on. A city planner? What the hell is that?" He asked me. No, a community organizer, I explained to him. "Whatever. That doesn't qualify you for the presidency." On the other hand, he thinks Sarah Palin is "fun" and "a pistol." He, too, has friends and family who simply won't vote for Obama because of his race. He's heard friends go off on five-minute long racist tirades about Obama, full of racial invective I won't repeat here. "There's better reasons to vote against Obama than his skin color," Weinberger told me. He's especially concerned about Obama's tax and economic policies.

McCain's derisive attacks on Obama as "Barack the Wealth Spreader" do seem to be resonating with middle-class Middle Americans. Never mind that if Obama really were a Socialist, they'd be the ones who would benefit the most. Never mind that Obama's tax plan, as he describes it, would lower their taxes. Some are legitimately afraid he will come take their hard-earned pay, and maybe their guns too while he's at it. Others are looking for an excuse to vote against him. Some don't trust Obama, or believe him when he insists only those making more than $250,000 will have to pay more. Obama didn't help his cause by suddenly lowering that threshold in his infomercial last night, to $200,000. Joe Biden took it even lower yesterday, to $150,000, although that may have been a typical Biden slip of the tongue, not an articulation of actual policy. Obama would do well to suggest that if McCain doesn't want to share the wealth, then he must want to keep concentrating it. But of course, we all know how faithful candidates are to their campaign promises, so who's to say that a President Obama, with a filibuster-proof Senate and a 100-seat majority in the House, won't propose an entirely different tax plan?

You don't really have to go to Wisconsin, or North Carolina, or Virginia, to find racists who might vote for Obama if only he were white. We've got them here in the progressive, enlightened Bay Area too. Voters have expressed that kind of bigotry to my face, if not into my microphone. I did a story on it yesterday. I ran into Senator Barbara Boxer and she didn't particularly like it. "I was just listening to your comments about race. I hate stories like that," she told me. "You're just giving voice to racism." At first I copped out by saying, well, we have to do the race story. But then I defended it more legitimately. "Wait a second," I told her. "It's real. The racism is out there. It's a serious issue. You can't ignore the elephant in the room." Besides, it's a lot better to expose bigotry than to ignore it and pretend it isn't there. She didn't agree, saying we're just legitimizing the racism by airing it, and giving these people a forum.

It will be difficult to measure the impact of racism in next week's numbers, but if Obama doesn't win, you can bet plenty of pundits and pollsters will try.

Beyond the Midwest, and the Middle Class, there's another kind of Middle Earth in this election. It's inhabited not by hobbits in search of a ring, but by voters in search of a candidate. They are the middle-of-the-road undecideds. Some people find it hard to believe anyone could still be undecided. But they're out there. One Northern California voter told me, he's a loyal Republican who's fed up with President Bush and the GOP. He says his party abandoned fiscal conservatism a long time ago, and he's more moderate than the party is on social issues. But he's having a really hard time voting for Obama. He doesn't think the first-term Senator is ready to be president, and he's wary of his economic policies. So five days before the election, he just can't commit either way.

Then there's the Tennessee Democrat I met outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He really wants to vote for McCain, because he respects his military service and thinks he'd make a better leader than Obama. He swears he's not racist, but he's ready to jump ship from the Democrats this time because he says he just doesn't know where Obama will take the country. But he was absolutely appalled by McCain's pick of Sarah Palin for vice president, and now he's torn. Obama or McCain? He told me he probably won't decide until he steps into the voting booth.

On the coasts, the race is over. Obama will sweep the Far West, with the exception of Palin's Alaska and maybe McCain's Arizona (although if it's a landslide, Obama could even embarrass McCain in his home state). He will also carry the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine all the way to Virginia, and maybe even as far south as North Carolina. But the presidency will be decided in the great middle of the country, the places we fly over on Jet Blue. If big swaths of that map turn blue next Tuesday, then the racism won't have mattered after all. If they stay red, then we'll know that McCain's 11th-hour economic arguments and scare tactics - "John the Fear Spreader" - will have carried the day.

Fresh interviews, analysis, ballot measure stories and the latest polls, all at

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Time Stands Still

My life is crazy busy. Yours probably is, too. Days whiz by. It's impossible to figure out where whole blocks of time go. Sometimes I yearn for the days when I had a mindless, menial job where I'd look up at the clock and watch the hands move in slow motion.

But with a week until Election Day, the presidential campaign feels that way all of a sudden. The campaign clock is M o v i n g. L i k e. T h i s.

Will November 4th never get here? We're in a holding pattern. The candidates are repeating the same arguments, over and over again. The polls aren't changing that much. The counting of ballots seems anticlimactic. The suspense is s-l-o-w-l-y draining out of what once was a scintillating race.

Candidates and their handlers know when they've lost. Despite his outward optimism, you can see that losing feeling on John McCain's face. He's going through the motions, but his campaign is collapsing around him. Sarah Palin is straining at the reins, already positioning herself for 2012. Her aides and McCain's are sniping at each other. She's ignoring the McCain team's instructions and talking points and veering from their prescribed message. The former Romney aides who jumped on the McCain bandwagon when their own man's crashed and burned are already undermining Palin, to bolster Romney's chances against her the next time around. The Republican National Committee is withdrawing advertising dollars from states where McCain can no longer compete, and is spending some instead in places he shouldn't have to defend, such as Montana. Some within the RNC are even debating whether that's good money after bad, and whether those dollars would be better spent defending imperiled Congressional seats instead.

Can anyone gaze into the future right now and really see John McCain standing on the steps of the Capitol, delivering that Inauguration Address on a clear, cold January morning? Or striding into the House Chamber to a standing ovation to give his first State of the Union speech? No, when you close your eyes and picture the next president in those defining moments - it's Barack Obama you see.

Does this mean it's really over? Well, no I suppose not. Something weird could happen. All the polls could be wrong. The country could be even more racist than we thought. Obama could admit he's a Marxist.

But reason and experience tell us that next Tuesday's results are all but set in stone now. This is shaping up as the biggest Democratic landslide in more than 40 years. The Democrats will have 58, maybe even 60, seats in the U.S. Senate. Nancy Pelosi will preside over perhaps a 100-seat majority in the next Congress. Barack Obama won't just win the presidency - he may have a mandate, or what passes for one in an era of bitterly contested, razor-close elections.

When this election began, each party's presidential candidate mapped out his path to victory. The problem for John McCain is that he's painted himself into a corner. He has only one escape route, and it's narrow, and daunting. He must hold every single state that George W. Bush won in 2004, and if he loses even one big one, or two smaller ones, then he must wrest Pennsylvania from the Democratic column. That's why McCain and Palin are spending so much time in Pittsburgh, and in the rural, rednecky areas between Philly and Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, new routes to Electoral College triumph are opening up for Barack Obama like spokes from a crossroads. His initial strategy was to defend all the states won by John Kerry four years ago, and somehow capture one of McCain's big ones, or two of his smaller ones. Now he's got multiple options: he could win Virginia and Iowa, and clinch the presidency. Or he could take away Ohio. Or maybe Florida, plus North Carolina. Or he could lose all of those, but win Indiana, Colorado and New Mexico. Or how about parlaying blood-red Nevada, Missouri, Montana and - gasp - McCain's home state of Arizona into a stunning victory?

Okay, if that last scenario happens, then it's a landslide, and Obama will have won every other state I just mentioned. Which could actually happen. Obama is comfortably ahead now in Virginia, Iowa, and, in some polls, Ohio and Indiana too. He's narrowly ahead in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, and he's catching McCain in Montana and Arizona. He's neck-and-neck in Florida, North Carolina and Missouri.

All that's left is for the Big Clock to strike Poll Closing Time one Tuesday from now. If Obama wins big, he could have more than 270 projected electoral votes once the polls close in the Mountain states - around 7pm California time, 10pm on the East Coast, even while Californians are still voting. If some of those Eastern states are too close to call, or if McCain closes the gap in the final days, then it might take another hour or two to settle things.

In the meantime, we will cover whatever developments there are, order the pizza for Election Night, put up our big maps, and wait.

It will all come too soon for John McCain. It can't happen fast enough for Barack Obama.

N.B.: You might want to check out our story about robocalls, their illegality in California, and the sexy one that's got a Bay Area Republican candidate for Congress in hot water. Also, the latest polls of course, updated every day, and much more at

On Election Night, I will live blog as we go, with constant updates, results, calling of states, etc. - as soon as someone shows me how to do that!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Governor's New Clothes

Now we know, the chant was wrong all along. It should have been "Shop, Baby, Shop!" not "Drill, Baby, Drill."

So Sarah Palin, along with Todd and the kiddies, went on a little high-end shopping spree. A few of them, in fact. As our buddies at Politico first reported, the Republican National Committee dropped about $150,000 on clothes and accessories for the Palins, mostly for the hockey mom herself. That buys an awful lot of hockey sweaters. Big deal, right? They need new outfits for their turn in the national spotlight.

The rub is that Palin sells herself as a small-town everywoman, a middle class working mom who's one of us, a regular Joanie Sixpack. She mocks big city values with derisive scorn, and pokes fun at the liberal elite who think they're too good for the rest of us. So where did she shop? Target or K-Mart? Wasilla Navy Surplus? No, she stocked up on designer outfits at Neiman-Marcus, Bloomie's and Barney's. On the eve of the the September 11th anniversary, hubby Todd was getting new duds at Atelier New York, while Sarah was spending thousands at Saks Fifth Avenue. While I was dodging urine balloons from protesters in my scuffed chinos on the streets of Saint Paul, she was off on a spree at the Minneapolis Neiman-Marcus.

Most of the clothes were actually purchased for her, by a personal shopper working for the Republican National Committee. The new wardrobes were bought in New York City, St. Louis and Minneapolis - big cities all, at high-end department stores not found in the likes of Wasilla, or even Anchorage or Juneau, for that matter. I guess the fall moose-hunting garb at the local Fred Meyer wasn't snazzy enough.

It's also galling that the Palins would drop that kind of money on fancy new duds in the midst of a global economic collapse. It's insensitive, to say the least, and it borders on illegal, since candidates aren't allowed to spend campaign donations for their own personal use. But the money came from RNC contributions, not donations directly to McCain-Palin, which skirts that particular restriction and probably makes the purchases legal.

Hats off to the Politico reporters for poring over last month's campaign finance statements and discovering those expenditures. I've spent plenty of hours wading through those documents in the past and while they often contain interesting tidbits (hmm, that famous actor gave him that much money? hey look, a friend of mine made a donation!), the list of spending usually just runs to things like phone bills and TV ads. Although if you closely examine the just-released reports for the first two weeks of October, you will see that the McCain campaign spent more than $22,000 on a celebrity makeup artist for Governor Palin - almost twice as much as it paid its chief foreign policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann (and a reminder: we have had a "Follow the Money" link to the FEC disclosure filings on our site for well over a year now, so you can always read all these reports for yourself).

And of course, every now and then, you strike gold with something like John Edwards' $400 haircuts.

And that's why I don't buy the McCain campaign's feigned indignation over this mini-scandal, or the complaints from the conservative talkers about the gotcha media's latest anti-Palin crusade. Their mocking of Edwards' haircuts was relentless; Rush Limbaugh still refers to him as "Breck Girl." There's no difference between the hypocritical Edwards preaching about poverty while getting overpriced coiffures and the hypocritical Palin splurging on Valentino. Or Cindy McCain telling voters her husband is the true champion of the middle class - while she's wearing a single outfit that's worth more than $300,000. Palin is complaining now that the fashion flap reflects "gender bias" on the part of the media, but it's certainly not sexist to point out the dissonance between what a candidate says and what she, or he, does.

A terse John McCain says Palin's outfits will be donated to charity after the election. His spokesman says "that was always the plan," from the moment the clothes were purchased. That doesn't really pass the smell test - not when the clothing designer at Saturday Night Live reports that Palin complained about the outfits he wanted her to wear on the show last week, insisting he dress her in something nicer.

My sources within the McCain team say campaign manager Steve Schmidt is absolutely livid over Fashiongate (just coined that, sorry), that he threw a fit over the tone-deaf blunder by the RNC. It shows a lack of coordination between the McCain money and the party's - even though the clothing purchases were disclosed under the "coordinated expenditures" of the committee's money. It's another example of the clumsy nature of McCain's campaign, which has lacked the top-down discipline and organization of Obama's all along.

I was going to write some more about the polls today, because we are absolutely inundated by them right now, but my fashion plate was too full to pass up. We do have a completely revamped "Who's Winning?" polling page, with a veritable cornucopia of survey data, graphs, charts, an interactive Electoral College map and poll analysis, all of which I am updating every darn day. And I promise to write tomorrow in response to all the questions I keep getting about how the various polls could be so wildly disparate.

But for now, the horse race takes a back seat to the clothes horse. The irony is that Sarah Palin is getting all these new clothes - just as more and more voters are realizing that she's not wearing any.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

McCain's Economic Crisis

Now we know why America is running out of money:

Everyone is giving all of it to Barack Obama.

It's been an amazing 24 hours for the Obama campaign. First, he drew an incredible 100,000 people to a rally near the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Remember those amazing pictures of his big rally in Portland last spring? With 65,000 people or so along the river? He blew that away with even more people crowding along the Mississippi this weekend, and then drew another 75,000 to Kansas City. They say that as goes Missouri, so goes the nation. Well, Obama may just take the Show-Me State, and if he does, President Bush will be showing him in to the Oval Office.

Then, this morning, Colin Powell announced that he's endorsing Obama for president. This has been rumored for months, and we thought it might happen at the Democratic National Convention, but many prominent Republicans, including senior members of the Bush family (that means both Presidents Bush) had been imploring Powell not to go public with his support for Obama. He finally decided to, announcing his endorsement on "Meet the Press," and then, well, meeting the press, outside the studio, where he elaborated on his decision. Rush Limbaugh is already dismissing the endorsement, saying Powell is only backing Obama because they're both black, pointing out that he's never endorsed any "white liberal inexperienced politicians." But Powell says it's because he's disappointed in McCain's campaign, disgusted by the focus on Williams Ayers, appalled by the selection of Sarah Palin ("she is not ready to be president") and impressed by Obama's intellectual capacity and calm, thoughtful nature.

Colin Powell doesn't carry the weight he once did, but let's face it: he was the first black National Security Advisor, the first black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first black Secretary of State. If not for his wife's reluctance, he could easily have been the first African American Vice President, or even President. Not only is he a Republican, but he was the front man for President Bush's ill-advised invasion of Iraq. He's still enormously well-respected and influential. And while they're pooh-poohing it now, you can bet the McCain team would have loved his endorsement, and trumpeted it far and wide if they had gotten it.

So how does Obama top a record-setting rally and a headline-grabbing endorsement? With a simply astounding campaign finance report for the month of September. One day before it's due, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent us all a video e-mail, announcing that Obama raised more than $150 million last month. This, on top of the $65 million he raised in August, and the untold millions he's raking in this month, which won't be reported until after Election Day.

A month ago, after Obama pulled in that $65 mill for August, some worried that he would have trouble maintaining that pace. The Republican National Committee had matched him, dollar-for-dollar, that month. John McCain is limited to the $84 million he gets in public money, but the RNC can raise and spend freely, and it has. Obama would need to keep raising at obscene levels in order to compete with the entire Republican war chest.

He's done it, in breathtaking fashion. $150 million in a single month? Do you have any idea how off-the-charts ridiculous that is? Just to put it in perspective, I remember covering then-Governor George W. Bush's presidential campaign in 2000. I was at a Bush event when he went over the $100 million mark for his campaign, which was a new record. For his entire campaign, all two years of it. No one had ever approached that figure before. Four years later, Bush and John Kerry combined to raise and spend about $650 million. Obama has raised $215 million in the last two months, and will probably top $300 million, or even approach 400 million, for the final 90 days of the campaign. He should easily beat that $650 million record - all by himself.

Now while Democrats may exult in Obama's fundraising success, and do cartwheels every time they see yet another national Obama ad during a World Series or NFL game (spots McCain can't afford to match) or on a swing state TV station, I think this kind of spending is out of hand. It's made a mockery of the public financing law. Democrats can argue that the end justifies the means, and it's fair for Obama to say that he's not "buying" the election; the American people are. Most of his donations come from everyday citizens giving 50 or 100 dollars, not from corporate titans and powerful lobbies seeking influence. As long as Obama remembers who elected him (if he wins), and remains beholden to Joe Sixpack - um, I mean John Q. Public - then that money won't have corrupted anything. But there's still something terribly unseemly about spending that much money on a political campaign, especially at a time when it's so desperately needed for other things. Too bad Obama can't appeal to everyday Americans to dig deep to end poverty, help the homeless and feed the hungry, and then turn around and give all that money to charitable organizations. I suppose, in his own way, that's what he intends to do with it, if he makes good on his campaign promises. But I still find the whole concept of political fundraising distasteful and inappropriate, which is why I would love to see true public financing of all elections.

As for Joe Sixpack, in case you somehow missed the truth about "Joe the Plumber" (that he's not named Joe and isn't a licensed plumber, among other things), you can hear our report about that from last Friday here.

So, on a weekend when Sarah Palin went on Saturday Night Live to prove she gets the joke and can laugh at herself (the material was hysterical but I still think Tina Fey does a better Sarah Palin than Sarah Palin does), Barack Obama added still more resources to salt this thing away in the home stretch: Colin Powell's blessing and 150 million more of your hard-earned dollars. Crisis? What crisis? His challenge will be to figure out how to replenish everybody's wallets if and when he moves into the White House.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Plumbing the Depths

"Good evening everyone, and welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our first question is for Senator John McCain. Senator, what would you do about the economic meltdown and the credit crisis?"

"Well, Bob, let me just say, first off, that I know all of America joins me in turning our thoughts tonight to one person, someone who we're all deeply concerned about in this difficult time."

"Oh, you mean Nancy Reagan? Who's in the hospital with a broken pelvis?"

"No, my friends, I mean Joe the Plumber. His name is Joe Wurtzelburger. He's out there in Toledo, Ohio, wondering how he's going to be able to buy a small business, take over the plumbing business, if Barack Obama becomes president and seizes all of his bank accounts, and redistributes all of his wealth to less fortunate plumbers."

"I see. And on the credit crisis? Your plan, Senator?"

"My friends, the markets are clogged. The entire system is stuck. The credit system is simply jammed and stuck and clogged. And at times like these, when my opponent is turning to his socialist crony terrorist friends, like Warren Buffett and Paul Volcker, my friends, that's when we need the people who are the backbone of this economy, the very foundation of what makes us a great nation, to unclog those economic pipes, and that would mean, of course, my great dear friend Joe Wigglebasket, Joe the Plumber from Ohio."

"You would put this Joe the Plumber in charge of the economy?"

"I would, Bob, and here's why. Who better to take a wrench to the rusty pipes of our economy, to the festering septic tank that is Congress, to seal our leaky borders, than my incredibly close friend, I love him like a brother, Joe Whiffenpoofer, the plumber from Ohio."

"Um...Senator, before I give Senator Obama a chance to respond, is that your entire plan to jump start the economy?"

"Did you say jump start, Bob? Then in that case, I'd also like to give a shout out to Mike the Mechanic...."

And we'll let Saturday Night Live take it from there this weekend!

Wow, just imagine the field day that Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman et al. are going to have with this Joe the Plumber situation. Just think of the blue jeans and butt cracks that we'll be seeing in late night skits the rest of this week. And all because John McCain needed some way to connect with the American people on the economy.

Now, I have to say, I actually think Joe the Plumber was an effective device for McCain in this debate. It allowed him to put a face on the impact of Barack Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich. It gave him a way to scare the undecided about what Obama might mean for their pocketbooks. But it would have helped if a) McCain got Joe's name right (it's Wurzelbacher, not Wurtzelburger); b) McCain had actually ever met the man he kept calling his old buddy and friend; and c) if Joe were actually a working class guy. He can afford to buy a business that makes about $280,000 a year? I think he's doing okay then. Besides, have you ever met a poor plumber? The guys who fix my pipes are making bank.

John McCain was definitely the aggressor tonight, which was no surprise at all. He still came off like your cranky neighbor, though. Instead of wandering around the stage, as he did at last week's town hall, he wandered around rhetorically, often starting an answer strong and then meandering away to some other point without ever completing the original thought. He also kept rolling his eyes during Obama's answers, which I found a bit annoying. But I thought, overall, that he performed a little better in this debate than the other two.

Obama, meanwhile, was his usual steady self, if a bit more defensive. McCain forced him to explain himself on everything from Ayers to Acorn to Abortion, but I thought Obama finessed those answers quite well. He comes off as calm and reasonable, and that, more than anything, may be why he's surged ahead of McCain in the polls. Right now, in a time of crisis, the American people seem to want calm and reasonable, not twitchy and tense. McCain's debate performances make you wonder if he's off his meds, and that's not the presidential demeanor most voters are seeking.

Still, the voter reaction to these debates baffles me a little. On substance, I thought McCain narrowly won the first one, I called the second one a draw, and I would say McCain won the first half of this debate and Obama the second half. But the polls keep showing really lopsided wins for Obama. That's rare in presidential debates; often, they are toss-ups. Our CBS News poll of 500 undecided voters gave Obama a huge win tonight, with 53% saying he clobbered McCain, 22% picking McCain as the debate winner, and 24% seeing it as a tie. The CNN poll of debate-watchers (not just undecided ones) had 58% saying Obama won, and 31% giving the nod to McCain. Those are landslide numbers. I think people are predisposed to like Obama more, and they're also turned off more and more by McCain's cantankerous nature and constant, sometimes condescending and sarcastic, needling of Obama. And the more people hear that Obama won, the more of them think he won, even if they didn't say so at first. That will reinforce the perception that Obama's won all the debates and probably add to his lead in the polls.

By the way, as I expected he would be, Bob Schieffer was terrific, learning from all the other moderators' mistakes, asking mostly excellent questions and following up effectively. Most importantly, he got out of the way and made himself pretty much invisible for nice fat chunks of the show, allowing the two Senators to engage each other directly and actually have a vigorous debate, instead of trading stump speeches.

There are 19 days, and counting, until Election Day. We'll see what the polls say in the next few days, but it doesn't appear this final debate plugged the leaks in John McCain's support. He's already abandoned ship in Michigan. Now the Republican National Committee is pulling out of Wisconsin and Maine. McCain is playing a defensive game, shrinking his efforts to snatch a state from the Democratic column to just Pennsylvania, where he's falling far behind, and New Hampshire, where he still has a chance. He's retrenching, concentrating his resources on holding on to the Bush states from 2004, namely Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada. He's close to writing off Iowa. And Obama's actually winning now in almost all of those states. The latest poll I just saw from Virginia has Obama up by ten points there, which is simply astounding.

As Bob Dylan famously sang, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. William Ayers and his friends liked that line so much they named the Weather Underground after it. After this debate, you don't need a plumber to see that John McCain's campaign is circling the drain, and if he doesn't find the stopper...really soon...even old Joe What's-his-name won't be able to rescue him.

(To hear our story about Joe the Plumber (yes, including an interview with him!), about the debate in general, or to hear the other interviews we did afterwards, please click here. To see the latest polls (the national numbers and some state-by-state polls), please click here.)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Obama's Surge

More than a year ago, John McCain told me, while visiting the Bay Area, that he'd rather lose an election than lose a war, and so he was stubbornly calling for a "surge" of U.S. troops in Iraq - sending even more soldiers to fight a war that most Americans no longer supported, at a time when one of the leading Democratic presidential contenders, Barack Obama, was calling for the exact opposite - a timely withdrawal.

Just as stubbornly, Obama continued to oppose the surge even after violence in Iraq began to diminish - though that's not entirely attributable to the increase in American forces there. Obama still says the surge wasn't a good idea, and won't admit it's worked, something that infuriates McCain, who thinks he doesn't get enough credit from the media or voters for his lonely insistence that we send more troops to Iraq, not pull out the ones who were already there.

Today, the economy, not the war, is the overriding issue as we enter the home stretch of the longest, costliest presidential campaign in American history. And today, we can report a surge of a different sort, one that Obama can endorse, because he may ride it all the way to the Oval Office.

Many polls have been showing Obama pulling away from McCain, but our new CBS News-New York Times survey shows Obama rolling toward a victory of landslide dimensions.

Our survey unit polled 1070 adults, 972 of whom are registered voters, from last Friday through yesterday (Monday). Fifty-three percent of them say they will vote for the Obama-Biden ticket; 39% say they'll vote for McCain-Palin. Six percent still aren't sure. That gives Obama a whopping 14% lead. Just one week ago, our poll taken the day before the second presidential debate had Obama winning by just three points, 48-45.

What's happened since then? Well, the second presidential debate swung a lot of independent voters from McCain to Obama. People who were leaning toward McCain but weren't quite sure, have changed their minds, and now say they support the Democrat. Last week, McCain led Obama among independents, 49 to 39%. Now, Obama is winning the independent vote, 51-33. And more than 80% now say they've made up their minds for good, and won't change it again. That doesn't mean they won't, of course, especially if something dramatic happens in tomorrow night's third and final debate, but it bodes well for Obama and ill for McCain.

Digging a little deeper into the voter Q and A, we find that people are really turned off by McCain's and Palin's personal attacks on Obama. Twenty-one percent say they think less of John McCain now than they did a few weeks ago, citing his negative campaign and his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. And McCain's criticism of Obama's relationships with former Weather Underground leader William Ayers and controversial pastor Jeremiah Wright don't seem to be having the desired impact. Eleven percent of those surveyed say they're bothered by Obama's association with Wright, nine percent are troubled by the Ayers connection, and four percent say they don't like that Obama is a Muslim (he's not; he's a Christian). But 56% say they're not bothered at all by anything in Obama's past.

Obama also holds commanding leads on questions about temperament and personality, ability to handle the economy, and understanding voters' problems - the very character and style issues that tend to decide modern American presidential elections. Fifty percent have a favorable opinion of Obama, and 32% don't. But only 36% like John McCain, while 41% look at him with disfavor. Only 32% have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin.

A few more numbers: 82% of Hillary Clinton supporters now say they will vote for Obama; Obama is beating McCain handily among men, women, moderates, and all ethnic groups except whites. But here's a wrinkle for you: McCain had been enjoying a significant lead among white voters - it was 15% just one week ago - but that margin is gone. In this latest poll, 46% of whites say they'll vote for McCain, and 45% will vote for Obama.

If McCain can't win the suburban, moderate white vote - and right now he's not - he simply can't win this election.

Obama is also gaining in the state-by-state battleground polls, building big leads now in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania and pulling ahead in New Hampshire, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina, New Mexico and even Ohio, Nevada and Florida. If I haven't buried you in numbers yet and you want more, remember that I update the latest polling information every day, complete with brief analysis, from the national polls and the swing states, on our website at this link. It's like a mini-blog for junkies and wonks.

But these are just polls, you say. They're notoriously wrong. They don't mean a thing.

Ah, but they do. The science of polling is still not exact, especially when one of the presidential nominees is half-black. But it's been refined quite a bit since my Sociology 101 seminar back in college (not to mention since I did a remarkably unscientific survey of CBGB's patrons in 1978 for my high school sociology class). Just as an example, I point you to Gallup's Daily Tracking Poll, a survey we feature prominently every day on the Sovern Nation polling page. At this point in 2004, many polls had John Kerry leading, by between two and four points. The tracking poll had Bush winning, by five, and its final survey the day before the election showed Bush beating Kerry by two points.

Bush beat Kerry, by two and a half points.

Today, that poll has Obama up by nine over McCain. Not quite the margin CBS News has for Obama, but still reflecting a surge of support for the Democrat, a surge that Obama can enthusiastically embrace. With three weeks until the election, John McCain must fear he may just get his wish.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Fire in the Belly Goes Out

It's finally dawned on John McCain: he'd rather lose an election than lose his soul. After weeks of pandering, opportunistic flip-flopping and, worst of all, telling voters that an Obama presidency would be dangerous and risky, implying that Obama would coddle terrorists and may even be one himself, McCain, in a moment of sudden clarity, spoke the truth the other day.

Maybe you saw it, or heard it. If not, watch it here. For more than a week, ever since McCain and Sarah Palin ramped up the Obama-hangs-out-with-domestic-terrorist-William Ayers routine, the crowds at their rallies had been growing increasingly lynch mob-like, shouting out racist epithets and punctuating the candidates' references to Obama with alarming cries of "kill him!," "traitor!" and "terrorist!" McCain and Palin did nothing to calm their venomous fury. But on Friday, just as some anxious Republicans were encouraging McCain to go after Obama with even more intensity, the Arizona Senator finally stepped back from the abyss. Twice during a town hall event in Wisconsin, he not only refused to take the bait from voters, he actually set them straight, refuting their assertions that Barack Obama is dangerous and scary, and that he's even - gasp! - an "Arab," as one woman put it.

"No," said McCain. "Senator Obama is a decent person...and a person that you do not have to be scared, as president of the United States." Later he called Obama "a decent family man" and assured that woman that Obama is not an Arab. His audience didn't want to hear it. Some gasped in astonishment and cried out "What?" in disbelief. Others booed.

You can't really blame them. For weeks they've been told just the opposite. Had the McCain campaign not fueled the rumors, not spread the innuendo, not insinuated that Obama is some sort of radical socialist Allah-lover, then that belief would be confined to the online world of conspiracy theorists and lunatic fringe bloggers (I, by the way, consider myself a lunatic mainstream blogger, so there). So the McCain-Palin camp absolutely deserves some of the blame here, and their sudden shift leaves many of his supporters not sure what to believe.

It's a relief to watch McCain see the light, to see him remember how he felt in 2000 when he was savaged by the vicious, underhanded attacks of the Bush-Rove campaign machine. You have to wonder if, deep down, he's realized he is not going to win this election, and he'll be damned if he's going to go out with no class at all. Or, if, instead, he recognizes that he can't possibly win on character attacks, and that his only hope is to tack towards the high road and re-focus on the issues, in particular the economy.

I've been salivating thinking about this Wednesday's debate. Both Obama and Joe Biden had challenged McCain in recent days, telling rallies that if McCain had nasty things to say about Obama, he'd better look Obama in the eye and say them to his face on Wednesday, instead of skirting the sensitive issues when they're together and saving the vitriol for the campaign trail. But now, with McCain backing down, I wonder if the Ayers issue will come up at all during the debate. Unless Bob Schieffer asks about it, and even if he does, I have a sneaking feeling that McCain will go soft, and lay into Obama on legitimate policy differences instead. That won't be as entertaining, but wouldn't it be refreshing?

The problem for McCain, though, is that once again, he has undercut his own most effective argument. For months, from late in the primaries until the conventions, his case against Obama was built on the Democrat's lack of experience and readiness. It's a legitimate argument: Obama simply hasn't been in elective office that long, has a thin resume in the Senate, and was, at least initially, quite vague on many major issues. But then McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, and there went that approach. Since then, his main thrust has been that Obama is naive, dangerous and untrustworthy; that voters don't really know who he is or what he would do; and that his questionable past associations raise real doubts about his true intentions for America.

Oops. Can't argue that one anymore either. Not when you just said "he's a decent family man" and that there's no reason to fear an Obama presidency. Now it's McCain whom voters aren't sure about. What does he really think? It's hard to know. The very same day, the McCain campaign released a new TV ad attacking Obama again on the Ayers issue, raising the same old fears about him and labeling him "too risky" to be president. At the end, McCain says, as always, "I'm John McCain, and I approve this message." Do you? Then why did you just contradict it in front of hundreds of voters?

Clearly, McCain is conflicted, or perhaps unable to rein in the baser instincts of his campaign managers. For a brief moment Friday, McCain veered toward sanity and reason, not toward saying whatever he must to win. McCain himself has said before that he always seems to sabotage his own political ambitions, that something inside keeps him from grabbing the brass ring, that in the end he tends to say or do something that keeps the biggest prize just out of reach. He may have just done it again, but at least this time, he really did put country first. We'll see if he stays on that path.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

That One Won

It happened in the middle of last night's second presidential debate. Barack Obama and John McCain were squabbling over who voted for what, when, on energy - an issue McCain returned to time and again, just as his running mate Sarah Palin did in her debate last week, apparently because the Republican campaign has decided it's their winningest issue now.

McCain, in a sarcastic, smart-alecky way, challenged the audience to guess who voted for what he called a "Bush-Cheney" energy bill, and who voted against it. Who voted for it? "That one," he said, gesturing toward Obama. And who voted no? "Me," McCain said proudly.

I sat bolt upright in my KCBS newsroom chair, where I was simultaneously watching the debate on TV, recording it in our digital audio system, logging the best sound bites and inhaling some excellent Szechuan food. I nearly spilled my black bean chicken.

"Did he just refer to Obama as 'that one'?"

Indeed he did.

It struck me as dismissive and disrespectful, but it is striking some African Americans as veiled racism. I'll leave it to others to decide that, but it was a moment that really stood out in the debate. It's become clear that McCain barely tolerates Obama, maybe not even as much as Palin tolerates gay people. He doesn't like to shake his hand, he barely looks at him during these debates, and the only time McCain even acknowledges Obama's presence is when he's scoffing at his experience and ideas.

But can you imagine the uproar if Joe Biden had referred to Sarah Palin as "that one" last week? There would have been howls that Biden was sexist and patronizing. Maybe it was an innocent turn of phrase, but I have a feeling this may be what everyone's talking about in the morning.

On substance, I thought this debate was essentially a draw. McCain had some strong moments (that one wasn't one of them), showed some initiative with that new mortgage buyback proposal, and wasn't quite as cantankerous as in the first debate. But Obama fared better in the town hall format than many people expected him to, parried McCain's thrusts quite deftly, and I thought looked far more relaxed and presidential. McCain seemed stiff and awkward as he lurched about the debate stage, while Obama was smooth and debonair. He has a disarming smile and a calm demeanor, while McCain comes off as irritated and a tad desperate.

And Obama succeeded in turning McCain's best lines against him. McCain had obviously practiced that quip about how sorting through Obama's tax plans is like "trying to nail jello to a wall," but Obama disemboweled it with his own comeback, telling McCain "the straight talk express just lost a wheel." When McCain returned to his signature argument of the first debate, that Obama just isn't ready to be president, the Democrat hit back with a dramatic list of McCain's most unstable foreign policy moments.

Obama clearly expected McCain to come out on the attack, as did so many pundits (not this one), because he beat him to the punch in the early going, using his very first answer to link McCain to the Bush economic policies. But, though he criticized Obama all night long, McCain didn't drop the gloves the way some thought he might, never bringing up William Ayers or Reverend Wright or any of the other Obama bogeymen that Sarah Palin's been flogging on the campaign trail lately. That kind of attack wouldn't have played well with the town hall crowd, and McCain was wise to avoid it. The problem for him now is, he didn't win this debate. The CBS News poll of undecided voters who watched it had 40% declaring Obama the winner, and 26% picking McCain. The rest thought it was a tie. A CNN survey of debate-watchers, not just undecideds, gave Obama a 54-30 landslide.

There were some other extremely encouraging numbers for Obama, and gloomy ones for McCain, in that CBS poll. Before the debate, 59% of those uncommitted voters thought Obama understood their needs and problems, and 33% thought so of McCain. After the debate? Obama's empathy index soared to 80%, while McCain's inched up to 44%. That says a lot about which man related more to the average viewer. Only 42% of these undecideds thought Obama was ready to be president going in to the debate; coming out, the figure is 58%.

So John McCain failed in his two central tasks: convincing voters Obama can't do the job, and that he, not Obama, feels their pain on the economy. Obama, on the other hand, closed the sale to a few more voters who weren't sure about him before. That means, even if this debate was a rough draw, Obama really won it, because McCain didn't score the decisive blow he needs to change the trajectory of this campaign.

And I don't know about you, but I'm really looking forward to Bob Schieffer in next week's final debate. Jim Lehrer was pretty good in the first one, Gwen Ifill was simply terrible last week, and Tom Brokaw was mediocre tonight. But Schieffer will be fantastic. Time constraints? Rules? One-minute rebuttals? Forget all that nonsense. Who cares about the format? The moderators don't even seem to remember what it's supposed to be half the time. The voters want real engagement on critical issues, not 90-second stump speeches with no follow-up. Just when a topic gets interesting, the moderator veers them off on a new course. That serves no one's interest. Let them have at it, for extended battle, on a few issues. Next week, they'll be sitting around a table with Schieffer, who brooks no nonsense on "Face the Nation" every Sunday morning. He knows exactly how to follow up, how to make someone answer a question, and how to slice through the garbage to the heart of the matter. McCain will be even more desperate, and he'll have no choice but to come at Obama with everything he's got. He might even rip off Obama's nicotine patch and call him a terrorist junkie. Now that one - I can't wait for.

New polls, post-debate interviews, video clips and even the entire debate, all available right now at

Monday, October 6, 2008

Fit To Be Tied

So, I was playing around with one of those interactive Electoral College maps the other day (here's a good one), and started creating what I consider an extremely plausible scenario. Here it is: John McCain holds almost all of the states that President Bush won in 2004, including the big ones - Florida, Ohio, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia and Nevada. At the moment, Barack Obama has actually pulled ahead in the polls in most of those states, but his leads are narrow, and you simply can't discount the race factor in most of those particular swing states. So I'm not willing to bet just yet that Obama will win any of those.

Just as realistic is the assumption that Obama will hang on to the battleground states that John Kerry carried last time - namely, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. He's winning, but not by much, in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but he's pulling away in Pennsylvania and of course, McCain is completely conceding Michigan now, which is an astounding development.

That really leaves only one swing state for McCain to turn from blue to red: New Hampshire. Obama's winning there too, but those "Live Free or Die" folks have a soft spot in their hearts for flinty mavericks, so let's say they pull the lever for McCain in the end and he swings those four electoral votes into the Republican column.

But I think Iowa, which went for George W. Bush last time, is just about in the bag for Obama, and he's got a real shot at flipping Colorado and New Mexico from red to blue, too. So Obama could steal three states from the Republicans, while McCain snatches just one from the Democrats.

Hmm, that sounds like it would be pretty close. So I clicked on the map to check that electoral vote total and - gasp! - it came out Obama 269, McCain 269.

Yes, that's right. A tie. And I wasn't even trying to create a tie - I was just plugging in what I thought was most likely on that particular day.

So what happens then? I knew the basics, but I pulled out the good old U.S. Constitution (you remember that - it used to be the governing document of the United States), and flipped to the 12th Amendment (and also the 20th) to brush up on some of the finer points.

You think Bush-Gore in 2000 was a national nightmare? Just wait for this one, folks. We'll make Kenya and Zimbabwe look like models of electoral stability. Here's what would happen:

First of all, the new Congress would be sworn in on January 3, 2009. Then the newly elected House of Representatives would choose between Obama and McCain for president. Each state gets one vote, regardless of size or number of Representatives. California gets one - so does Rhode Island, etc. Presumably, each state would cast its vote along party lines, based on which party has a majority of the state delegation. But perhaps some states would feel compelled to support whichever candidate carried that state. In any case, right now the Democrats control 26 states, the Republicans 21, and the other three are split, 50-50. If the Democrats increase their majority in November, they could have more than 26.

But a candidate needs to win at least 26 of the 50 states to be elected president, and the House only has until March 4th to get the job done. If Obama and McCain each got 25 votes - neither would be president.

In the meantime, the Senate gets to choose the vice president, independently of what the House does. So we could end up with an Obama-Palin administration (the mind reels....) or a McCain-Biden regime.

The Senate is split right now, 49 Democrats and 49 Republicans, but the two independents, erstwhile Democrat Joe Lieberman and Vermont Socialist Bernie Sanders, caucus with the Dems, giving them a de facto 51-49 edge. The Democrats are likely to have at least 55 seats in the new Senate, so Biden would most likely be elected vice president (although, with Lieberman very much a pariah now among the Democrats, and an enthusiastic McCain supporter, a 50-50 tie would be a real possibility if the GOP somehow holds on to all its open seats).

So if Biden is chosen veep, and the House can't choose a president by March 4th....then Biden becomes president! If neither chamber can elect someone - then the presidential order of succession kicks in, which makes Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi the 44th president of the United States (one more caveat here: the House is empowered to pass a law designating someone else president if it so chooses, but if it can't even decide between Obama and McCain, that's not likely to happen).

So there you have it: an absolute mess that would gridlock government and plunge the country into a blistering partisan cluster@#$!.

Is it likely to happen? No. But it could. As we've learned the last few years, American presidential politics has become stranger than fiction.

In reality, in the few days since I started mulling this over, the tenor of the race has shifted, and Obama has opened up significant leads in even more of the red states. As of this writing, an Obama landslide looks more likely than this far-fetched tie scenario. But we've still got a month, and two more debates, to go, and Lord only knows what twists and turns are still in store.

For the very latest polls, and some analysis thereof, please click here. I will talk to you again after this next debate!

Friday, October 3, 2008

Governor Palin's Reading List

Maybe you saw the last installment of Katie Couric's exclusive interview with Sarah Palin, in which Palin was unable to name what newspapers and magazines she reads on a regular basis. Through my contacts in Alaska, I have obtained a copy of Palin's secret subscription list, which I reproduce here for your benefit:

U.S. Moose and Wolf Report
Hockey Mother Jones
Halibut Today
Drill Bit Quarterly
Good Iglookeeping
Better Homes and Icefields
Working Unwed Mother
The Wasilla Street Journal
The Midnight Sun-Times

and, of course, the National Enquirer.

I felt compelled to dig up this information after watching last night's vice presidential debate between Palin and Joe Biden. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that Governor Palin doesn't have a very broad knowledge base. She does, however, have a full arsenal of doggone folksy expressions and a remarkable repertoire of winks and smiles.

One could argue that Sarah Palin won that debate, simply because she didn't embarrass herself with some obviously dreadful gaffe, and never had a desperate moose-in-the-headlights moment. On the surface, at least, she seemed to rediscover the frontier woman pluckiness that won the hearts of so many Middle Americans during the Republican National Convention.

One would be wrong, however. I refuse to lower the bar that low. I've watched the debate twice now, and I had to stop compiling my list of Palin's misstatements, factual errors, filibustering platitudes and evasive, time-wasting non-answers because it was giving me carpal tunnel syndrome. Biden had his share of b.s. too, misrepresenting some of John McCain's positions and some of his own, but by and large, he answered the questions, more directly than Palin, or for that matter, Obama or McCain did in their debate.

In fact, I think of the four candidates, Joe Biden has given the best performance so far, by far. He was uncharacteristically restrained and respectful. He stayed on point. He listened to the question, remembered to answer it, listened to his opponent's answer, responded to that, and demonstrated an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge, especially on foreign policy. On subtance, Biden won this debate in a crushing landslide. On style, Palin gets some points for her frisky country governor routine, but not enough to negate Biden's overwhelming advantage on everything else.

Last week, my take on the first presidential debate was out of sync with the polls. I thought McCain did well, and may have beaten Obama, by a narrow margin. But surveys showed most voters, especially the undecided, declaring Obama the winner.

This time, it turns out I agree with the voters. CBS News polled 500 undecided voters who watched the vice presidential debate. Forty-six percent of them say Biden won. Only 21% thought Palin did. The remaining 33% say it was a tie. CNN polled voters in general who watched the show, with 51% giving the win to Biden and 36% picking Palin, although by 54 to 36, those voters found Palin the more likable of the two.

In the CBS poll, 18% of those previously uncommitted voters now say they will vote for Obama. Ten percent of them have decided to vote for McCain. Fifty-three percent have a better opinion of Biden now, and only five percent think worse of him. Palin scored well in that regard too, with 55% saying they like her more now, but 14% say they like her less after the debate. And 98% see Biden as knowledgeable about important issues - only 66% say Palin is, although that's a huge improvement from the 43% who thought that about her before the debate.

Palin echoed McCain in her stubborn refusal to stop repeating false facts. She said U.S. troops are below pre-surge levels now. They're not - something you would think the commander-in-chief of the Alaska National Guard, whose son just joined those troops, would know. She said Obama voted to raise taxes on families making as little as $42,000 a year. That's simply not true. She kept calling the general in charge of American forces in Afghanistan "General McClellan." His name is General David McKiernan - which Biden must know, but to his credit, he never corrected Palin. That's an old habit of Biden's, something he's done since his first campaign for the Senate; when his opponent makes a mistake like that, he lets it slide, or even pretends he doesn't know the right information either, so as not to show up the other debater.

Palin, on the other hand, was quick to jump on Biden when he complained that the McCain-Palin energy plan is all about "drill, drill, drill."

"The chant is 'Drill, Baby, Drill,' Senator," she corrected him, seeming to savor the moment.

I thought the debate's most powerful moment came near the end, when Biden choked up while remembering the death of his wife and daughter, and near-death of his younger son, in a car crash in 1972. It seemed real, uncontrived, and it really connected with those watching, according to those voter meters CNN uses. From that point on, Biden was more forceful, as if he sensed the end of the debate was near and he was going in for the kill.

He got it, like a head shot on a moose in Denali.

Besides, I can't watch Palin anymore without thinking of Tina Fey. For me, the Alaska governor has become a caricature, and if she can't shake it, she's doomed.

I can't wait to watch Saturday Night Live this weekend. In the meantime, I'm sending Gov. Palin complimentary subscriptions to the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Anchorage Daily News.

She may want to skip the section where they print the polls, though, because nothing happened in this debate to stop the McCain-Palin slide, or really to alter the race in any way. That burden falls on John McCain himself, in next Tuesday's town hall face-off with Barack Obama.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ready For Round Two?

If the election were held today, Barack Obama would win - but a lot of voters would be confused, since Election Day isn't until November 4.

Except - the election is being held today. And tomorrow. And for the next five weeks. That's because more and more states allow Early Voting, so people are already casting ballots in Ohio, Virginia, Georgia and other key states.

I can't imagine voting before Election Day. I want every bit of information before making my decision. What if a candidate is caught doing something horrible a few days before the election? Or dies? I see no reason to vote until I really have to.

Many undecided voters say they've been waiting for the debates to help them make up their minds. Well, the debates started last Friday - and it's clear which way those voters are breaking. This race is starting to jell now, and although it could certainly whipsaw in another direction at any time, it's becoming Obama's to lose.

I thought John McCain did very well in the first debate. Expectations were lowered by his schizoid behavior in the days before it, his will-he-show-or-won't-he soap opera and the "suspension" (such as it was) of his campaign to help address the financial crisis. But I thought he came out strong in the debate's opening moments, took the fight to Obama and displayed his impressive knowledge of the issues, both foreign and domestic.

Obama won by not losing, though. He held his own against McCain, made no glaring mistakes, and by the end of the evening, proved he belonged on the same stage as his veteran opponent, establishing his "presidential" credentials. Obama was far more gracious and respectful than McCain, who came off kind of like the cranky neighbor who always complains about your dog tearing up his garden. That irascible attitude seemed to annoy a lot of undecided voters, and Obama clearly has passed a significant hurdle with many of them this week: they've decided that he is ready to be president, despite McCain's rather pointed assertions to the contrary.

Our new CBS News-New York Times Poll finds that of those who watched the debate, 51% thought Obama won, and only 26% thought McCain did. Overall, including people who didn't see the debate but heard about it later, 41% said Obama was the winner, and 21% said McCain. Other polls support those findings. More importantly, voters in the swing states came to the same conclusion. In Florida, for example, where McCain has been holding a small but steady lead, the Quinnipiac poll found those who watched the debate scoring it for Obama, by a margin of 49 to 34%. As a result, Obama has surged ahead of McCain there, 51-43.

In Ohio, which has been a dead heat with McCain barely ahead, debate-watchers told the Quinnipiac pollsters that Obama won the showdown (49% to 33%), and suddenly, Obama has taken the lead in the Buckeye State, 50-42. There's a similar story in Pennsylvania, where Obama's lead over McCain had been dwindling. Now Obama is way ahead, by an astounding 54 to 39%. In Iowa, which voted for President Bush last time, Obama's got a 16-point lead now, according to the new KCCI-TV Poll. In Virginia, Nevada and bellwether Missouri, all swing states that were Republican red in 2004, Obama has caught and passed McCain.

It's not just the debate, of course. Voters think Obama is better-equipped to manage the economy, and they're also losing confidence in Sarah Palin. The more interviews she does, the more she sinks in the surveys. Palin's answers - on Russia, on the bailout, on the Supreme Court, even on what newspapers she reads - are dropping as many jaws as the opening scene of "Springtime for Hitler" in "The Producers."

One conclusion is inescapable - the pundits' opinions don't matter nearly as much as our critics think they do. The voters made their own judgment of that debate, regardless of what we professionals thought. Most experts I spoke with called it pretty much a draw, and many gave McCain a slight edge. But the voters gave Obama a clear victory. You can't blame that on the liberal media conspiracy.

There is deepening concern in the McCain camp. A whiff of desperation is creeping into their rhetoric. You can hear the panic among the conservative talk show hosts as they ratchet up their vitriol. They can feel this thing slipping away.

It isn't over, of course. Sarah Palin has a huge chance to redeem herself in Thursday night's vice presidential debate. Again, the expectations have been lowered, to a ridiculous level. If she's vibrant and sparkling, homespun and funny, zinging Biden with folksy Alaska one-liners, and can somehow muddle through the tougher fact-based questions with enough stock phrases about reform and change and shake-up, then she could surprise those who think she's just going to babble, drool, and spew non sequiturs until her head spins around and explodes. Joe Biden could call her "darling" and "sweetie," veer off on some long-winded digression about his childhood in a Welsh coal mine, and then reminisce about Abe Lincoln's TV appearances during the Mexican-American War. Barack Obama could show up for next week's town hall debate in a dashiki and bandoliers.

Or, on a more serious note, there could be a major terrorist attack, or some other foreign policy emergency that undermines the voters' emerging confidence in Obama's readiness. And, of course, there is the potential racism factor, which could subtract five to seven points from what Obama's getting in all these polls, and that could swing enough of those battleground states back to McCain.

But for the moment, the narrative of this election is being set - and it's setting in Obama's favor. We'll see if The Great Debates, Round Two - Biden vs. Palin - does anything to keep the cement from hardening.