Starting Gate: The Pause Is Off

After a one-day respite from lipstick and pigs as the campaigns halted their increasingly bitter battle for 9/11 remembrances, the fisticuffs have begun again in earnest.

We've heard over the past few days, and again this morning in the New York Times, that Barack Obama is getting set to go on the attack after a couple of weeks taking punches from John McCain. More and more the "fears" and "concerns" among some Democrats about Obama's response to the attacks – mostly whispered anonymously – are surfacing in news accounts.

It's happening again, is the cry from party regulars who remember all too well the last two Democratic nominees who they believe went down after similar GOP tactics were ignored. Fight back, they urge Obama, use their techniques against them, show your outrage and shout from the rooftops. There is a quieter group of Democrats who think the answer is to reclaim the agenda with serious policy speeches and force the debate onto higher ground where they believe Obama holds an overwhelming advantage.

But is it too late? When the McCain campaign began running TV ads mocking Obama's "celebrity" late in the summer, the campaign all-but laughed it off, safe in the knowledge that their poll numbers remained steady and the underlying dynamics made them a heavy favorite. Casting the McCain campaign as flailing and desperate, they went on their merry march toward victory.

Much has changed over the past month, however. While McCain's selection of Sarah Palin has generated tons of talk and the Alaska Governor has at times overshadowed everything else, it's also done something more fundamental. Palin seems to have hardened partisan lines that appeared ready to be blurred in this historic election. Suddenly, Republicans are Republicans and Democrats are Democrats again and that uncommitted voter pool is shrinking.

Her candidacy has triggered the kinds of visceral reactions which seem unlikely to fade – people either like or dislike her, there is very little in-between. More critically, the debate over political figures like Palin tend to be fierce and emotional, with little room for second-guessing. Revelations, flubs or embarrassments are likely to be met with the talking points of each side instead of reconsiderations.

Obama's counterpunching may make Democrats feel good but it could easily deepen the trenches that both sides have already dug, just as Palin's nomination has. The good news for Obama is that the numbers just may favor him in such a contest this time around. Democratic registration has soared in key states, his campaign has a proven track record of organizing those numbers and he had a much better test run during the primaries. The bad news for Obama is that winning such an election ensures a tough post-election road in trying to "change" much of anything. Just ask the last president who squeaked into office with that promise.

Around The Track

  • The Politico's John Harris breaks down the kind of political advice Bill Clinton might have given Obama at lunch yesterday.
  • A USA Today analysis of her record concludes that Palin has been a centrist governor, not a culturally conservative on.
  • McCain will appear on The View and The Rachael Ray Show today as Barack Obama gets an appearance on Saturday Night Live this weekend.
  • "Even in a political culture accustomed to truth-stretching, McCain's skirting of facts has stood out this week." – AP's Charles Babington, in an analysis of McCain's TV ads.