We are barely at the beginning of the long period in which most Americans will give their first serious scrutiny to the presidential candidates and decide whether Barack Obama or John McCain will get their vote.
They have many questions about both these men. In the Washington Post-ABC News poll last week, only half of those interviewed said they felt they knew an adequate amount about the candidates' stands on specific issues. Voters split evenly on who would be the stronger leader and showed great uncertainty about which, if either, would be a safe choice for the White House.
Obama leads on domestic economic and social issues, but McCain is a strong favorite on national security and terrorism. The former POW's personal appeal looms as the strongest barrier to the Democratic victory indicated by the towering majorities who disapprove of President Bush (68 percent) and who fear the country is headed seriously off on the wrong track (84 percent).
Are voters comfortable?
Despite those fundamental weaknesses in the Republican position, McCain trails Obama in that same poll by only six points, hardly an impossible margin to overcome. What may be crucial in the end is whether people become comfortable with the prospect of Obama as their president.
McCain benefits from a long-established reputation as a man who says what he believes. His shifts in position that have occurred in this campaign seem not to have damaged that aura. Obama is much newer to most voters, less familiar and more dependent on the impressions he is only now creating.
That is why a pair of strategy decisions made in the last two weeks could prove troublesome for him. The first was Obama's turning down McCain's invitation to join him in a series of town hall meetings, where they would appear together and answer questions from real voters – without a formal agenda, press panel or professional interviewers.
Obama's manager initially called the idea “appealing,” but nine days later, when David Plouffe got around to responding, he countered with something quite different than the 10 informal discussions McCain proposed holding before the late-summer nominating conventions. Plouffe said that in addition to the three traditional debates under official sponsorship later in the fall, there could be only two others – one on economics on July 4 and another on foreign policy in August.
The McCain side said few Americans would sacrifice their Independence Day holiday to watch a debate, and reiterated their offer to meet Obama anywhere he wanted on any of the next 10 Thursdays.
At a press briefing last week, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs characterized that as a “take-it-or-leave-it” stance by the Republicans, and suggested that discussions were finished.
At the same briefing, Gibbs and campaign counsel Bob Bauer defended Obama's decision to become the first presidential candidate since the Watergate reforms to refuse public financing of his general election campaign.
Figuring him out
Gibbs and Bauer in effect blamed McCain, saying repeatedly that he was “gaming the system” by pledging to accept public funds while saying he could not “referee” spending by outside independent groups if it occurred. In fact, McCain had been far more vocal in denouncing such groups on the GOP side than Obama was in criticizing their counterparts playing Democratic presidential politics – even though Obama has claimed the mantle of campaign finance reformer that McCain has long enjoyed.
Obama supporters note that town halls are McCain's favorite campaign settings, so it's no surprise he prefers them to formal speeches, where Obama excels. They point out that public financing helps McCain, who has lagged all year in his private fundraising, while it would inhibit Obama, who has tapped into a rich vein of small contributors using the Internet.
But it's also the case that the multiple joint town meetings McCain proposed would be a real service to the public and that suspending the dollar-chase for the duration of the campaign, as McCain but not Obama will do, would be a major step toward establishing the credibility of the election process.
By refusing to join McCain in these initiatives in order to protect his own interests, Obama raises an important question: Has he built sufficient trust so that his motives will be accepted by the voters who are only now starting to figure out what makes him tick?