August 18th, 2008
11:52 AM ET

Is the tide turning?

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/18/art.forum.jpg]
David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Heading into the candidates' appearances on Saturday night at Saddleback Church, the conventional wisdom in politics was Barack Obama should have a clear upper hand in any joint appearance with John McCain - one the young, eloquent, cool, charismatic dude who can charm birds from the trees, the other the meandering, sometimes bumbling, old fellow who can barely distinguish Sunnis from Shiias.

Well, kiss that myth goodbye.

McCain came roaring out of the gate from the first question and was a commanding figure throughout the night as he spoke directly and often movingly about his past and the country's future. By contrast, Obama was often searching for words and while far more thoughtful, was also less emotionally connective with his audience.

To be sure, Obama held on to the loyalty of his own supporters - many have written in blog sites since how much they respected both his nuanced answers and the honesty of his convictions, especially his Christian faith.

There is no evidence that he lost ground through Saddleback. Moreover, Democrats can poke lots of holes in McCain's arguments and can charge that he is too much the warrior who would be too quick to send troops hither and yon. So, there is much for Democrats to chew on.

But the point is that McCain showed that he can be a much more formidable and effective campaigner in a joint appearance than hardly anyone imagined. The debates this fall are going to be pivotal to the final outcome of the election, and McCain gave a clear wake-up call to the Obama team that he may be much tougher to beat than expected.

Moreover, McCain is now on a sustained roll in his campaign. Since the time he shook up his organization a few weeks ago, he has been much more focused and has started to get through to voters. Democrats - and the press - didn't like the quality of those ads, but they seem to have worked politically. His stand on drilling and on Russia have also strengthened his aura of command. And now Saddleback.

That's quite a run and it is reflected in the polls: not only have the national numbers tightened up but McCain has actually moved ahead (slightly) in three key battleground states: Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.

A web site that averages all significant polls, RealClearPolitics.com, has previously projected that just looking at polls, Obama was ahead in states with over 300 electoral votes; now he is down to 275 - a tiny cushion since 270 is the magical number for winning.

At Saddleback, Obama surely held on to his base support but McCain strengthened his and probably appealed to some undecideds, too.

In short, the tide is moving for the first time in the Republican direction. And the realization is setting in that McCain might just win.

We are still many weeks away from the election and the overall landscape clearly favors the Democrats, but these latest developments put pressure on Obama and his party to pull themselves together or face a stunning upset. What must they do? For starters:

  • Obama must select a running mate who gives a lift to his campaign and can also hammer home a message in the convention and in the vice presidential debate this fall. He definitely needs a fighter by his side. (For my money, Hillary Clinton looks better and better; if not her, Joe Biden is probably the best fighter - perhaps Evan Bayh, or a surprise choice.)
  • The Democratic convention in Denver has to be a roaring success, not only uniting the party but sending a much clearer, crisper message about why 4 more years will be 4 more years of tears.
  • Obama himself must find his voice again, not only in his acceptance address but in the debates. He needs to bring passion as well as inspiration, a clear sense of what the choice is, and a compelling sense of why he is strong enough as well as wise enough to lead the country through tough times.

In the meantime, the message of the moment is that John McCain is no old fuddy-duddy who isn't sure where he is going; he was on fire at Saddleback and for the first time, he looks like he could win in November.

Filed under: Barack Obama • David Gergen • John McCain • Raw Politics • T1
soundoff (218 Responses)
  1. Freddie LaFemina

    This is yet another article that gives McCain the edge. As Noam Scheiber has pointed out on The New Republic blog, Saddleback is McCain country – evangelicals are solid McCain supporters, so why isn't more being said of the great fact of Obama's invitation and participation, not to mention his inherently greater challenge in answering Rick Warren's questions, given that he disagreed with the audience and Warren on many discussed issues, while McCain did not.

    August 18, 2008 at 11:35 pm |
  2. Jarad

    While I love all the drama this "debate" and others create, the blogs on the topics are always a little disturbing. Why do some of us continue to insult the others opinion, regardless of prefered political preference. We all have the right to say who did better, or who we like more, but I'm not about to insult half of America by saying Republicans or Democrats suck or are stupid, or whatever other insult comes to mind. I respect both candidates, McCain for his service to our Country, and Obama for his zeal and bringing in a whole new generation of voters. I hope regardless of who wins, America will unite behind the next POTUS, and become a United Nation, not a divided by party nation. I'm not undecided, but I think both did well in the interviews, and I think both are great people, and I hope they are both and will be (whoever wins) great leaders.

    August 18, 2008 at 11:33 pm |
  3. Francisco Cardenas

    Not debating McCain early on may be the BIG mistake for Obama. He did poorly against Hillary and she had to hold her punches because they are both Democrats ... McCain won't have to hold any punches and the debates will be way too close to election day for Obama to recover!

    August 18, 2008 at 11:32 pm |
  4. balty

    It would appear that CNN is supporting McCain. McCain IS FALSE and nothing but a puppet fror the GOP. He doesn't have a mind of his own. He panics.

    August 18, 2008 at 11:29 pm |
  5. P. Moore - Dixon, Ill.

    Give me a break! If John McCain would ever cut with the "Vietnam" crap he wouldn't have anything to say! Talk about being stuck in the past and not knowing what we need for the future.

    Oh!... and I wish to heck that someone would go out and buy him a new hat....something NASCAR maybe?

    McCain is a nothing but a joke as far as a Presidential candidate goes, but he's a PERFECT Homer Simpson look-alike. DOH!!!

    August 18, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  6. John Dinwiddie

    David Gergen. Right.


    August 18, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  7. joshua

    thank you jeanette

    August 18, 2008 at 11:28 pm |
  8. Lynn/West Hills, CA

    Mr Gergen!

    Way to go!

    Someone noy afraid to write it like it was....

    August 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  9. john

    McCain clearly did a better job answering the questions, because he believes in what he is saying. What many have called thoughtful answers, I and many others saw as vague, and dancing around each issue. Clearly McCain believes in his positions, and Obama appears unable to even convince himself of his ever changing positions.

    August 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  10. CJ

    and, uh, Jo Ann, being able to think about a question beforehand is a huge advantage...of course he's not going to "steal" Obama's answers! But your metaphor makes no sense, sorry...

    August 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  11. Pat

    I don't see the tide moving in McCain's direction at all David. And I really don't feel it would be to anyone's advantage. Regardless of how one perceives McCain the truth will not change. He is a Loyal Republican. In fact, the most loyal Bush had during his Campaign. He has demonstrated his similarities to Bush. They are both war mongers. And McCain will continue the war and dole out more American dollars if elected. He may even initiate another war!

    You can try to lead the horses to water but you can't make them drink. McCain will not witn this election. The reason being he is too much like Bush. Their intellects indeologies, egos, arrogance and need for power to prove themselves are equal. McCain offers no change except for the possibility of a much greater level of disaster.

    August 18, 2008 at 11:27 pm |
  12. DEBORAH - Florida

    In my opinion, this event was just plain bogus. Mc Cain evidently had a preview of the selected questions and had the opportunity to rehearse his timely answers. This should've been investigated and plastered on the news because if it was Barak Obama, the media would've had a field day trying to discredit a good man's charator and intergrity. There are a majority of people who can clearly see through this misinterrupted event. The old saying, "You can fool some of the people some of the time but you cannot fool me."

    August 18, 2008 at 11:26 pm |
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