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Starting Gate: Five Fall Questions

Monday marks the first official day of autumn and there's no getting around it now – this campaign is nearing the end. With just over six weeks left, here are five starting questions for fall:

1). How Low Will They Go? We're not talking about the mudslinging here (although that's gotten pretty low already), we're talking about the polls. The surge John McCain got from his selection of Sarah Palin has mostly evaporated. And while Palin remains a net-positive for the Republican candidate because of the way she's invigorated the party's base, her poll numbers have to be a concern for the campaign.

The scrutiny given Palin over the past few weeks and the attacks on her from the opposition appear to have eroded her support. In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, the number of those who believe she is prepared to be vice president fell five points in just over a week and those who said she is not went up ten. More strikingly, McCain went from a five point lead among women after the GOP convention to a 16-point deficit this week.

Polls will go up and down but you can't underestimate the psychological impact they have on voters and the campaigns themselves. Has the race come back to balance or is there a real shift toward Barack Obama?

2). Which Wins, Change Or Experience? Overall this is a "change" election, even John McCain, the "experienced" candidate, has acknowledged that. Assuming that McCain/Palin has been able to at least open the way to being accepted as part of that change, will it be enough? Nowhere will the contrast between the dynamic that has driven this be more evident that the debates, which kick off next Friday. When Obama and McCain (or Palin-Biden) finally share the same stage in front of what should be an enormous audience, will "change" or "experience" sell best?

3). What Will The "October Surprise" Be? It doesn't have to be October – doesn't even have to be a real surprise – but chances are that some unforeseen event or development will shake this race up. Already we've seen international events (Russia and Georgia) and developments at home (Wall Street meltdown) make a dent in the way the campaign is viewed. What will be the "big" thing? Some new development in "troopergate?" The capture or death of bin Laden?

4). Who Will Break Through On The Air? This campaign has been conducted in a media environment unlike any other. New ads, both real and concocted for publicity, cycle through the system on a daily basis. That's great for pushing a message but when those messages are changing constantly, do any of them stick? Outside of the "3 a.m." ad in the primaries and maybe the "celebrity" ad using Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, there aren't any memorable ads. Is it all about micro-targeting these days or will one of these campaigns break through on the airwaves in a big way?

5). What Role Will Race Play? It's the elephant in the room and despite the enormous amounts of time spent trying to figure out the answer, race remains a real unknown in the campaign. No matter how many times the media or Obama point out his Christian faith, the idea that the candidate is Muslim persists among not a few voters. And no matter what voters tell pollsters, we won't know whether there's a "Bradley effect" in the electorate until after Election Day – if even then. Will we ever really know what role race played in this election?