Week is Obama's, but race still close

If conventional wisdom ruled politics, Barack Obama would be on his way to the White House after last week.

He went overseas with the national news media in tow and staged a series of well-choreographed scenes that were designed to make him appear “presidential” and to address the fact that many voters still consider him inexperienced and a risky choice.

Heads of state shook his hand. The prime minister of Iraq welcomed part of Obama's plan to get U.S. troops out. Two hundred thousand Germans cheered him in Berlin. On Friday, he met with the French president; on Saturday, the British prime minister.

That may all pay off for the Illinois Democrat. But it's July, and he shouldn't pick the White House china just yet.

At home, even as he struggled to steal some of the national spotlight away, rival John McCain managed to stay in the game.

The Arizona Republican went to the battleground states of Ohio and Pennsylvania, dominating local news coverage and talking about gas prices, an issue mentioned in local coffee shops much more than Obama's trip.

Polls show Obama with an edge, but the contest still very close.

In surveys of battleground states taken just before Obama's trip and during its first days, Quinnipiac University found McCain gaining on him in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin and pulling narrowly ahead in Colorado.

“The race is tightening,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Connecticut university's Polling Institute. “McCain's doing a little better because Obama's post-primary bounce is wearing off.”

“The drop-off in Obama's support earlier this week … suggests caution in assuming that the trip will have any lasting impact on the structure of the race,” said Gallup editor Frank Newport.

Obama, however, likely got much of what he wanted from the trip.

“It made him look more presidential,” said Michael Alvarez, a political scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

“Behind all this is the development of a personal story that he's developing foreign policy experience. It is part of his resume he needs to backfill.”

Indeed, by a margin of 44 percent to 30 percent voters think Obama better suited to improve the country's standing in the world, according to a new NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll – but they also think that McCain is better equipped to be president by a margin of 53 percent to 19 percent.

Yet even if Obama offered little new in the way of foreign policy and network TV interviews included tough questions about his opposition to the surge of extra troops to Iraq, Alvarez said, the enduring image will be of Obama standing with foreign leaders.

“I don't think it will lead to a sudden change in the polls,” he said. “But this may start them thinking. …

“It's the pictures,” he said. “These are the sort of visuals we're going to see for the rest of the campaign.”

Sure enough, though Obama aides insisted repeatedly that the trip wasn't political, the campaign shot video of the carefully staged events.

Within hours of Obama's speech in Berlin, for example, campaign manager David Plouffe used a video of the event in a fundraising letter. “Watch Barack's historic speech and share it with your friends,” Plouffe wrote. The e-mail then included a red button urging them to “donate” and linking to a form making it easy to send online contributions ranging from $25 to $2,300.

McCain, who once called the news media his “base,” chafed as he watched the coverage of the Obama trip – a trip that McCain had taunted Obama to take.

“My opponent, of course, is traveling in Europe, and tomorrow his tour takes him to France,” he said at a stop in Ohio. “A throng of adoring fans awaits Sen. Obama in Paris – and that's just the American press.”

He tried to steal some of the attention, but his efforts may not all have produced the desired effects. McCain ate at a German restaurant in Ohio while Obama was addressing a crowd of 200,000 Germans, and a visit to former President George H.W. Bush in Maine produced a photo of an octogenarian and a septuagenarian riding in a golf cart.

Even the weather conspired against McCain: Hurricane Dolly forced him to drop plans to visit an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico to highlight his support for offshore drilling.

Still, McCain scored points under the national radar by traveling to Ohio and Pennsylvania, holding town hall meetings, and talking about energy.

In Pennsylvania, for example, he received extensive coverage from local news media.

WBRE, the NBC affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., led its late-night newscast Tuesday with live coverage of his airport arrival, then followed with live coverage of his town hall meeting Wednesday.

In Columbus, Ohio, the Dispatch played McCain's appearance above the story of Obama's speech in Berlin.

“I don't think they feel the effects of the trip here. People are looking at gas prices,” said Laura Spatzer, a saleswoman in Bloomsburg, Pa.

“I really haven't followed the trip. I'm not really sure why he's there,” said Stephanie Severn, a sandwich shop owner in Bloomsburg. “He's not president yet.”