DENVER — Forget the buzz about John McCain as the new Bob Dole, and especially the talk that Democrats have a lock on the White House.
This week the presidential race really begins, and as Barack Obama prepares to accept the Democratic nomination in Denver, his election looks anything but inevitable. Recent conventional wisdom that the GOP faced an insurmountable head wind has given way to a dead heat and widespread anxiety among Democrats wondering why their candidate isn't comfortably in the lead.
"I don't think the race is so much about the political climate," said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, whose Panhandle district President Bush won by nearly 20 points in 2004. "I think it's really about Barack Obama and John McCain.''
And right now the polls show a neck-and-neck race where Obama has serious challenges ahead despite the anti-Republican sentiment in America: Nearly half of Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters aren't yet sold on the Democratic nominee and a sizable chunk of the electorate views him as a distant, foreign figure without a clear agenda.
"He's exciting, he's likeable, he's a great campaigner, but then what?'' said Miami lawyer Ira Leesfield, a top Clinton fundraiser who now supports Obama but is no longer aggressively raising money.
"I don't think this election is going to be decided on personality or how great you are. It's going to be about leadership and how great these candidates are as problem-solvers. I see this as being a real race."
Seeking comfort level
It's fashionable to say that nominating conventions are meaningless four-day campaign commercials. In fact, they are thoroughly scripted shows that still matter a lot — especially when the nominee is a newcomer with an exotic biography with whom many voters have yet to feel comfortable.
Boiled down, that comfort level is what Obama needs from the convention that starts Monday with speeches by family members fleshing out his story and concludes Thursday when America, on the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, watches the first African-American to accept a presidential nomination of a major party.
Obama will largely own the airwaves this week, making it the Illinois senator's best and last chance to tell America who he is and where he wants to take the country in challenging times for the economy and national security.
"It's a pretty simple race actually. If people can envision Barack Obama as president, I think he will win pretty handily,'' said Democratic National Committee member Allan Katz of Tallahassee. "A lot of people don't know who he is, and the convention gives him the opportunity to articulate to the American people who he is and what he wants to do as president."
Saturday's addition of Delaware Sen. Joe Biden to the ticket may also offer some reassurance.
Needle won't move
There are plenty of reasons for Obama supporters to worry.
Since June, Obama has spent at least $7.4-million on TV ads in America's biggest battleground state, compared to zero for McCain. He has also launched an unprecedented voter persuasion and mobilization effort in Florida, with hundreds of paid staffers and campaign offices opening in places that haven't ever seen a Democratic presidential nominee campaign.
The result? Polls show he hasn't moved the needle and, if anything, has lost a little ground. The average of Florida polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows McCain up 2.6 percentage points, compared to a tie one month ago. Nationally, polls show Obama's lead cut in half, to about 3 percentage points.
It takes 270 electoral votes to win, and RealClear's polling averages show Obama currently with 228 solid electoral votes, McCain with 174, and 136 up for grabs in toss-up states like Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia.
"Obama has an image problem, and I think it was one that was created at the very beginning by being very successful motivating people and leading them down a path, but at the end of that path he turned out to be not what was promised," said Florida Republican chairman Jim Greer, arguing that Obama has never provided a specific vision.
"The potential for us winning I think is greater than (the Democrats)," Greer said, "but it's going to require us to be at the top of our game, particularly in Florida."
Looking for bounce
Preconvention polls are dubious predictors, however. In 1992, some polls showed Bill Clinton in third place behind George Bush and Ross Perot. In 1988, Michael Dukakis was comfortably ahead prior to the conventions.
Nor is there a solid gauge for a reasonable postconvention boost in the polls. The pollsters at Gallup say the average convention "bounce" in modern elections is five points, but four years ago President Bush and John Kerry received little or no lift in the polls. This year, with compressed back-to-back conventions, and the likelihood that McCain will name his running mate just as the Democrats leave Denver, public opinion shifts could be minimal.
What's more, turnout models in this election are entirely unpredictable, with the Obama campaign painstakingly working to mobilize infrequent or first-time young and minority voters. In the crucial battleground states, anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of voters are undecided and waiting for the kinds of campaign-shaping developments just now kicking off.
"Everyone ought to just take a breath. We've got some major moments ahead,'' said Obama national campaign manager David Plouffe. "They're both going to do VPs, we've got both party conventions, we've got four debates in the fall. And what we find is a lot of these undecided voters, they're paying attention but they're going to click in a major way soon, and we'll see how the dust settles. But I think states like Florida, states like Virginia, states like Ohio and some of the Western states, they're going to be close throughout."
Reality setting in
Indeed, the story line developing last spring about a Democratic landslide probably never made sense. Whether the Democrat was the polarizing first female nominee or a black man named Barack Hussein Obama, did a blowout ever seem realistic?
"There's the political climate and there's partisanship in the country. The partisanship is not really different from four years ago or eight years ago,'' said Florida-based Democratic pollster Dave Beattie. "No one's going to walk away with the presidential race in an open race. Given the partisanship in this country, that's not going to happen."
Still, given Obama's fundraising success ($389-million to McCain's $174-million), enthusiasm and the country's hunger for change, anxious Democrats enter the next crucial phase of the election better positioned than they've been in decades.
This is Obama's moment to seize the momentum, but Democrats have scant assurance that he can do it.
"I'm hopeful. I think the die has not been cast,'' said T. Wayne Bailey, a Stetson University political scientist and longtime Democratic activist who has been to nine Democratic conventions. "Probably in this phase, the next four weeks and the decisions that are made will either create a bonding effect or it will create a centrifugal effect. But if I were in Reno, I'd still bet on Obama to win. If he can't win this election, the Democrats ought to have someone else write the script."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.