A close race in three key states

Peter Brown and Clay Richards have enough experience between them monitoring national politics to make their views stand out in the near deafening din of babble in the current presidential race. In fact, when it comes to putting things in perspective, the veteran reporters turned demographers are remarkably adept at distillation.

"This election is all about whether Barack Obama is fit to be president of the United States," Brown told his former colleagues at breakfast the other day, explaining that the election would turn on the Illinois senator’s ability to convince voters that he is experienced enough to handle the job. Asked whether race was part of the equation, Brown said that factor is immeasurable, considering voter reluctance to admit it affects their choice.

He assessed Sen. John McCain’s chances as difficult considering there "are two major problems he can’t do anything about. He was born in 1936 and his party’s leader, George W. Bush, is the most unpopular president in modern history. People blame him for everything."

As assistant directors of the Quinnipiac University (Conn.) Polling Institute, Brown and Richards, former longtime political writers, authors and consultants, came to town the other day to outline the results of their latest findings in three key electoral states — Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. The survey found that energy had replaced the war in Iraq as a leading concern and that Obama’s widely heralded European trip had not brought any immediate benefits to the presumptive Democratic nominee. Actually, it may have helped McCain.

The survey of 1,200 people in each state found that in Florida and Ohio, the race is too close to call with McCain having closed the gap to within two percentage points of his opponent, 46 to 44 since June. In Pennsylvania, Obama’s lead was 49 percent to 43 percent, a decline for the Illinois senator of three points.

"The $64,000 question," Brown said, "is whether McCain’s surge is a result of Obama’s much-publicized Middle Eastern and European trip or just a coincidence. While Obama was trying to show he could handle world affairs, voters were home trying to fill their gas tanks."

The July 31 poll also found that by margins of 27 to 30 points, voters in each state said Congress should agree with Bush’s proposal to allow offshore drilling for oil. "The same voters who give Bush job approval ratings that are more than 2 to 1 negative want Congress to go along with the president on the drilling question," Richards said. "McCain clearly sees public support for drilling as a means to challenge Obama’s claim to be the best candidate to fix the economy."

The survey was released just as majority congressional Democrats were defeating efforts to reach an energy compromise that would have included drilling. The lawmakers adjourned for a summer recess without reaching any agreement on how to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil that is helping to push the economy into recession. The congressional hand wringing and maneuvering for political position is one of the more disgraceful performances in a long history of them on both sides of the aisle.

In the meantime, the declining public opposition to drilling and McCain’s television commercials that paint Obama as insensitive to the needs of Americans struggling to meet gasoline prices seemed to have prompted Obama to soften his position against opening offshore areas and possibly those in Alaska for oil operations.

Obama said that he could support drilling in these locations if that is necessary to reach a compromise on an overall energy policy. This shift, although slight, could not make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi very happy. Pelosi, who owes her career in part to the environmental lobby, has adamantly led the congressional opposition to drilling even in the face of soaring fuel costs.

With unemployment numbers rising, the pump price of gas remaining high, housing foreclosures still climbing and consumer confidence declining, it is difficult to imagine that voters aren’t going to blame whomever they see as maintaining special interest positions without compromise. Pelosi’s stance on drilling can’t help her party’s candidate and it would be amazing if she doesn’t try to find a way out of it before the election, especially with numbers like those from the Quinnipiac poll.

If, as Brown put it, Obama is to be judged fit to handle the difficult job of president despite a dearth of experience, he has to persuade voters he can convince both Republicans and Democrats to set aside their own interests and move to the center with him when it is necessary. That may be difficult for the political rock star.




(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)