Starting Gate: Square One

Who would have thunk it? After a summer filled with bad economic news, energy woes, global instability and pessimism about the course of the nation, the presidential candidate representing the incumbent is in a dead-heat with the charismatic upstart promising change. In the latest CBS News/New York Times poll, John McCain has narrowed Barack Obama's lead, trailing by just three points – 42 percent to 45 percent, a virtual dead heat.

In the face of the general environment, which would seem to favor any candidate not associated with the current administration, these tightening polls are a puzzle (an NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey just out shows the identical 45-42 result).

The general feeling is that voters remain more comfortable with McCain and have not yet warmed to the idea of an Obama presidency – the old, he-hasn't-closed-the-sale assessment. And there's plenty of evidence to back that up. McCain holds a large advantage on experience. In the CBS poll, 68 percent or registered voters said they thought McCain was prepared for the job of president while just 44 percent said the same of Obama. In addition, 44 percent said McCain is very likely to be an effective commander-in-chief compared to just 21 percent who said that of Obama.

But there also seems to be real disconnect between the campaign, the news and what voters say they care most about. Over the past month, the focus of the news has shifted away from economic concerns and toward foreign affairs (where McCain should hold a natural advantage). The conflict in Georgia, unrest in Pakistan, the specter of a rising China on display at the Olympics and even Obama's own trip overseas have eclipsed the housing crisis, energy prices and other economic news.

Voters, however, have very loudly expressed their opinions throughout the course of this campaign that the top issue on their minds is the economy. The candidates haven't exactly done their part to address those concerns. Outside of a rather robust debate over the energy crunch and off-shore drilling, their attention as of late has been elsewhere, whether it's foreign affairs or the Saddleback forum focused more on faith than pocketbook issues (although taxes made a cameo appearance).

In exit poll after exit poll and in survey after survey, voters have said unambiguously that the economy is the highest priority. If there's a "sale" yet to be made to voters it may very well be that neither candidate has made it on the number one issue. "The economy" isn't always just about energy prices and taxes. It's about job growth and security, health care, Social Security, education and other aspects.

In 1992, Bill Clinton took advantage of an electorate looking for "change" by focusing on the economy like a "laser beam" throughout virtually the entire campaign. McCain and Obama are behind in getting their messages out but it's not too late to do just that.

Around The Track

  • The McCain and Obama campaigns issued a joint statement this morning, announcing an agreement on the presidential debates this fall: "The Barack Obama and John McCain campaigns have agreed to hold three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate in September and October sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The campaigns have come to the earliest agreement on presidential debates reached in any general election in recent history. This announcement reflects the presidential campaigns' agreement on dates, locations, and the formats for the fall debates.
  • McCain heads off the trial today for his ranch in Arizona. He has no public events scheduled through Sunday. Obama will stump in Virginia.
  • No big news on the vice presidential front although the AP reports that Democratic operatives are warming to the idea of Joe Biden.
  • In an interview with the Politico, McCain says he is not considering making a "one-term" pledge.