Saturday, July 26, 2008

unease with-- vs. hope for (or wishful thinking about)-- Obama

From Gerald Seib and Laura Meckler with the WSJ...

Midway through the election year, the presidential campaign looks less like a race between two candidates than a referendum on one of them -- Sen. Barack Obama.

With the nominations of both parties effectively settled for more than a month, the key question in the contest isn't over any single issue being debated between the Democrats' Sen. Obama or the Republicans' Sen. John McCain. The focus has turned to the Democratic candidate himself: Can Americans get comfortable with the background and experience level of Sen. Obama?

This dynamic is underscored in a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. The survey's most striking finding: Fully half of all voters say they are focused on what kind of president Sen. Obama would be as they decide how they will vote, while only a quarter say they are focused on what kind of president Sen. McCain would be.

The challenge that presents for Sen. Obama is illustrated by a second question. When voters were asked whether they could identify with the background and values of the two candidates, 58% said they could identify with Sen. McCain on that account, while 47% said the same of Sen. Obama. More than four in 10 said the Democratic contender doesn't have values and a background they can identify with....

Those findings suggest voters' views of Sen. Obama are more fluid than his relatively steady lead indicates. In the latest poll, 47% say they prefer Sen. Obama to win, while 41% say Sen. McCain, the same lead Sen. Obama enjoyed a month ago. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The campaign's unusual dynamic appears to be the result of an anxious nation now sizing up an unconventional candidate who presents himself as the agent for change, which voters say they want. The contest thus parallels in some ways the 1980 race, when voters seemed ready for a change away from Jimmy Carter and the Democrats, but weren't persuaded until late in the race that they could be comfortable with a former actor and unabashed conservative, Ronald Reagan, as commander in chief.

"Obama is going to be the point person in this election," says pollster Peter Hart, a Democrat who conducts the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll along with Republican Neil Newhouse. "Voters want to answer a simple question: Is Barack Obama safe?"

If the answer is yes, then Sen. Obama stands to benefit further from a favorable environment for Democrats. If no, Sen. McCain is seen by a wide swath of Americans as a safe, well-qualified potential commander in chief....


Campaign 2008 bears some striking similarities to the 1980 campaign, when -- as now -- the resident of the White House was unpopular and his party was suffering. The question was whether the opposition party had nominated a candidate who would be seen as safe or too far out of the mainstream.

The doubts about Mr. Reagan lingered until he acquitted himself well in a single nationally televised debate against Mr. Carter, just one week before the election. Ultimately, Mr. Reagan won going away.


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