By the time and spoke at a forum on manufacturing in Pittsburgh recently, they were still consumed by their latest food fight. This one was about some of Obama's ill-chosen words at a San Francisco fundraiser where he said that, after years of neglect, small-town voters had become bitter and "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them ... as a way to explain their frustrations." Soon Clinton was drinking a beer and a shot of Crown Royal, full of nostalgia about how her granddaddy taught her to shoot a gun. Obama dubbed her "Annie Oakley," while Clinton started to run paid ads about Obama's elitism. Then Clinton took to the stage to tell steelworkers, yet again, that she had been "disappointed" by Obama's initial remarks.
They hissed. Some shouted, "No." This wasn't the debate they wanted. Their message: We want this election to be about us. Too bad that memo never made it to the last Clinton-Obama debate. The topics: the pressing questions about Obama's flagless suit lapels and whether he has ever socialized with radicals from the 1960s.
The winner:. He had been in Pennsylvania, too, only he was talking about the economy. Sure, his speech was late. And yes, it contained all of the appropriate bromides for Republican base voters--making the Bush tax cuts permanent, for instance. But his prescription had a populist bent, with calls for a summer gas tax moratorium and for the wealthy elderly to pay more for their prescription drugs. McCain also took offense at the "extravagant salaries and severance deals of CEOs" and their "reckless corporate conduct." Smart Nixon-going-to-China politics for a Republican, especially one who wants to attract independent voters.
So as the Democrats bicker, McCain pulls just about even in matchups in the national polls. That's closer than he has any right to be, given the unpopularity of the president and the Iraq war, not to mention that a whopping 81 percent of voters think the country is headed down the wrong track. Democrats remain the favorites to win the election, but, as former George W. Bush pollster (and now independent) Matthew Dowd tells me: "They're taking a likely Democratic victory and turning it into a probable Democratic victory that could well become a dead heat." And it's not that McCain has a brilliant political strategy. "He's gained everything," adds Dowd, "and has had to do virtually nothing for it."
The problem for these Democrats is that they don't really disagree about much. Early on, they argued about the finer points of healthcare and who is really more against trade deals. Now, it's about who hates corporate lobbyists the most. Or which top aide should be fired for doing or saying something stupid. Or which candidate made the dumbest mistake. Truth is, when you agree on the big things, the best you can do is to try to make the smaller things seem more important. Or make the case that you're more committed on the larger issues. So it becomes a matter of not where you stand but how strongly you stand for it. When intensity trumps all, get ready for an unilluminating--and annoying--fight. Which is where we are..
Lost trust. The problem for Clinton is that all of her efforts to peel away Obama's smooth facade and turn him into an unpatriotic elitist (among other things) haven't shored up her own credentials. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that she has lost trust among voters, a majority of whom now see her as dishonest. The same survey shows that Obama is now considered--by 2 to 1--to be the most electable Democrat. Clinton, when pressed publicly, had to say that "yes, yes, yes," Obama can beat McCain. But that's not what her team is whispering to superdelegates.
There are those hopeful Democratic Party leaders who say the nastiness will melt away once there's a nominee. But now fully one third of Democratic voters say they might not suport the party's pick if it is not their choice. "The more bitter this fight, supporters become harder to move and unify," says Dowd.
So it's no surprise that when you ask a top McCain adviser whom his campaign would prefer to run against, he professes ambivalence. "I don't care," he says. "Either one of them." At this point, it's hard to disagree.
By Gloria Borger