There was the hint, at least, of possible joint appearances between the two presidential candidates in the way that John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater once talked about. There was one candidate promising to change politics forever and another pledging to stay away from the kind of tactics he himself had been burned on in the past.
Just as important, virtually the entire nation appeared to be engaged and in play for both candidates, making this a truly national election. Real and major history is going to be made in November but it's not going to happen as a result of a serious discussion of real issues, it appears. Instead of those Lincoln-Douglass style debates, we're suddenly talking about lipstick and pigs, stuck right back in the kind of base-driven politics we've become so accustomed to.
Why? Because it is what campaign operatives knows. And because it works. Both candidates have based their appeal, to a great extent, on being different kinds of candidates. Obama has talked in transformational terms about healing political divides and bringing opposing interests together. Yet on almost major issue, he's hewed to the Democratic Party line in the U.S. Senate and on the campaign trail. John McCain makes a lot of being a "maverick" and bucking his party – which he has – yet in the years leading up to this election, he's shifted many of his views back in line with ruling Republicans.
For McCain, that transformation was not quite enough to please many of the activists he'll need if he is to have a chance in November. One of the reasons why the candidate has seen a bump in the polls is because his choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate has ignited that base, energized those activists and hardened the electoral divide.
And it's looking more and more that instead of 18 state-by-state battles, the old electoral map is starting to come back as the focus of the November election. At the moment, the red states are looking slightly redder, the blue just a bit bluer and the swing states a little swingier. Independent-minded voters still look to be key to Election Day but the numbers who are undecided have shrunk in recent weeks.
Take these particular candidates out of the equation and this race almost starts looking like 2000 or 2004 all over again – a close election with a sharply divided electorate coming down to a key state like Ohio. There's still time for the candidates to deliver on their promises of a different kind of election, still a series of four debates to be had, any of which could alter the race. But the deeper both sides dig in, the less chance we'll see that kind of change, at least in the campaign sense.
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