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Bounce or breach

/ Source: National Journal

It's too early to say with certainty, but the Gallup daily tracking polls are suggesting that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., benefited from his nine-day trip to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe as much as sympathetic pundits suggested he would.

Obama's numbers were within the margin of error as recently as the July 21-23 tracking, 45-43 percent, but since then have widened.

The latest poll, conducted Friday-Sunday among 2,674 registered voters with a 2-point error margin, has Obama with 48 percent to Sen. John McCain's 40 percent.

It is unclear whether this is a temporary bounce from the trip and its attendant coverage, or whether it is a sign of a threshold breach.

The good news for McCain, R-Ariz., is that the election is not today and that a lot will happen between today and Nov. 4.

Some high-profile chunks of the general campaign await, including debates, conventions and a whole lot more.

But if, and the operative word is "if," voters saw the photo ops showing Obama standing as an equal with world leaders, being treated as an equal, and being idolized by huge foreign crowds, it could help the freshman Illinois senator clear that threshold of credibility he desperately needs to cross. So did Obama make real progress in transitioning into a presidential figure?

There is something else that might be contributing to some Obama momentum.

Notwithstanding the reputation around Capitol Hill, where McCain was known for having a short fuse, he is widely seen as a wisecracking maverick, a real character.

But over the last two weeks, McCain and his campaign have taken on an edgier, angrier and even mean-spirited tone. As one observer put it, it gives the impression of McCain as a cranky old man standing on his front porch in a bathrobe and slippers barking at the neighborhood kids to get off his lawn.

Should this race get to the point where Obama is seen as more presidential and McCain is perceived as angry and bitter, a campaign that is legitimately competitive won't be for long.

The environment seems set for a Democrat to win. In a July 18-21 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,003 registered voters, only 13 percent of those surveyed said the country was headed in the right direction, and 74 percent said it was on the wrong track, the most pessimistic in the history of the poll.

The survey, which had a 3-point error margin and was conducted by Democrat Peter Hart and Republican Neil Newhouse, showed President Bush's approval rating at 30 percent, with a 64 percent disapproval rating. This is not the kind of environment that enables a party to win the White House for a third consecutive time.

Not surprisingly, the survey showed voters generically preferred a Democrat to win the White House this fall over a Republican by 12 percentage points, 48 to 36 percent, and Democrats to control Congress by 13 points, 49 to 36 percent.

While the positive ratings for the Democratic Party were an anemic 43 percent, with 37 percent negative, the Republican Party had just 31 percent positive and 48 percent negative.

Just as ominous for Republicans is the shift in public opinion, moving away from the laissez faire message that the party has long embraced and toward a somewhat more activist view of government.

When the poll asked which statement came closer to respondents' views, 53 percent chose "government should do more to solve problems and help meet the needs of people," compared with 42 percent that preferred "government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals."

And for this particular matchup, when 55 percent chose "this is a time when it is important to look for a person who will bring greater changes to the current policies even if he is less experienced and tested," compared to 40 percent who chose "this is a time when it is important to look for a more experienced and tested person even if he brings fewer changes to the current policies," it does not bode well for McCain.

If Obama begins to look more presidential and is seen as having greater stature while McCain is seen as angry and unpleasant, it is an opportunity for this race to transition from a very competitive period to one that is a blowout.

This would be a huge problem for McCain and the Republican Party. It is far from sure that this is what is happening, but the danger of this is much greater today than a month ago.

While Obama was certainly ahead before all of this, he had definitely not closed the sale. There is a decent chance that Democrats will "waste" lots of votes by winning California, New York and Illinois by enormous margins.

Obama is also likely to outperform former Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in some Mountain and Southern states.

On the other side, McCain's margin in Texas will not likely be as large as President Bush's were in 2000 and 2004. Given these likely possibilities, there is a good chance that there could be a fairly dramatic disparity between the popular and Electoral College votes.

This is worth watching over the next few weeks. Has there been a shift in how Obama and McCain are perceived or not? We'll see.