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Starting Gate: Just How Confident Should Democrats Be?

Does Barack Obama already have the presidency locked up? For Democrats, it might be tempting to think so.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll out yesterday shows Obama with a 12 point edge – an advantage that stretches to 15 points when Ralph Nader and Bob Barr are included.

The poll also suggests that more voters are identifying as Democrats than Republicans, and that John McCain is suffering from a "passion gap" – while just 58 percent of conservatives said they would vote for McCain, 79 percent of liberals vowed to vote for Obama.

In addition, almost every metric in the race favors the Democratic candidate – among them the candidate's fundraising ability, trends in party identification, and disenchantment with the current (Republican) president. McCain seems to realize that he faces an uphill battle: At a fundraiser yesterday, the presumptive GOP nominee said, "We are behind, we are the underdog. That's what I like to be."

And while that may be a stretch, Democrats would be wise to temper their enthusiasm. For a cautionary tale, they need look no further than 1988: In May of that year, Michael Dukakis had a 10 point lead over George Bush in a New York Times/CBS News Poll. A Gallup poll taken two months later, just after the Democratic convention, showed Dukakis with a 17 point lead. Note this passage in the 1988 Times story on the May poll, concerning the silver lining for Republicans: "Many voters, for example, worried that Mr. Dukakis may lack the [experience] to be President." Sound familiar?

Just as Republicans are looking to do with Obama, Dukakis was defined by his opponent over the course of the election as an elitist who was unprepared to deal effectively with national security issues. The Massachusetts governor's missteps on the trail – chief among them the disastrous M1 Abrams tank photo-op – only exacerbated that perception. (Obama, of course, has already shown a propensity for missteps of his own, among them the "bitter/cling" comments and his connection to former pastor Jeremiah Wright.)

Obama is no Dukakis: The Illinois senator is a far more charismatic campaigner, and will not take the sort of time off from running for president that Dukakis disastrously did in 1988. And as Power Line points out, June polls have become far more predictive of final results since Dukakis' failed run. But even now, McCain's chances may be better than these early national polls suggest: CBS News chief political consultant Marc Ambinder examined the general election map Friday and found that between base states and those leaning towards McCain, the Arizona senator could claim 220 electoral votes. Obama could claim 212.

McCain's biggest problem may simply be that he needs Obama's help. If the presumptive Democratic nominee doesn't make serious mistakes in the coming months, it may be extremely difficult for his rival to close the gap – even if McCain's campaign comes up with the 2008 equivalent of a Willie Horton ad. Still, anyone who thinks the election is already over would be wise to study their political history – and remember we have no idea what surprises could come between now and Election Day.

Around The Track:

  • In an ad out yesterday, Oregon Republican senator Gordon Smith crossed party lines to align himself with Obama. "Who says Gordon Smith led the fight for better gas mileage and a cleaner environment? Barack Obama," an announcer says in the spot, which you can see here. "He joined with Gordon and broke through a 20-year deadlock to pass new laws that increase gas mileage for automobiles." Responding to the ad, campaign spokesman Bill Burton said in a statement that while Obama "has a long record of bipartisan accomplishment," the candidate supports Smith's rival, Democrat Jeff Merkley, in the Oregon Senate race.
  • Obama is "giving the green light to his financial contributors to help pay off Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign debt," CBS News' Maria Gavrilovic reports. The presumptive Democratic nominee gave the go-ahead on a conference call with his National Finance Committee last night. Obama's finance team is expected to help Clinton pay off roughly $10 million in debt, though not the $12.5 million she lent her own campaign.
  • McCain announced more foreign travel yesterday, this time a planned trip to Columbia which is scheduled to take place before July 4th. "I want to assure [Colombian President Alvaro Uribe] that I believe in free trade between our two countries, that I believe that our two nations can work together and fight back the scourge of drugs that has so much afflicted their country and ours," McCain said. Obama opposes a proposed free-trade deal with Columbia. Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman will accompany McCain on the trip.
  • Michelle Obama will give the keynote address at the Gay and Lesbian Leadership Council Gala in New York City tomorrow night. She will be joined at the Democratic National Committee fundraiser by DNC Chair Howard Dean and New York First Lady Michelle Paterson.
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