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Obama struggles to close the deal

Even as Barack Obama and John McCain refine their fall strategies, they should remember that many voters are still weeks away from paying attention.
/ Source: National Journal

I follow baseball the way that most normal people follow politics. For most of the season, I'm only peripherally tuned in. Sometimes I'll have a game on TV in the background, but I'm not following it all that closely. I'm embarrassed to admit that I have sat through an entire Nationals game without being able to name more than one player in the lineup.

Come September, though, I suddenly become an expert. I'll know wild-card teams and division winners. And by the time the World Series begins -- especially if there's a team in it with a compelling storyline -- I will be able to rattle off the names of the starting infielders and pontificate about their batting averages.

So when I hear folks saying that is struggling to "close the deal," it's the same as someone telling me that a certain team can't win the World Series because they aren't further ahead in their division. Yes, Obama is "underperforming" the generic Democrat advantage. And yes, he has yet to convince many undecided Democrats that he's up to the job. But isn't this August? And the election is November, right? Regular people have lots of other things on their minds that need immediate attention. Who they are voting for almost three months from now isn't one of them.

This isn't to say that Obama shouldn't be concerned with the challenges ahead of him -- or that he's certain to win. To be sure, this has not been a great couple of weeks for him. With the spotlight turned to foreign policy, 's been able to enjoy time in his comfort zone. He also scored points at a more domestic setting last weekend -- a sit-down with evangelical leader Rick Warren at his megachurch. Obama's performance not only got low marks, but it set tongues wagging among nervous Democrats that he'll fall flat in the fall debates.

McCain has also gotten more comfortable -- and more pointed -- in his attacks on Obama. It's not just that Obama is inexperienced, McCain warned in a speech Monday to the VFW conference in Florida, but he questioned whether Obama has the "judgment to be commander in chief."

Why is this important? When you look at the reasons that key voting blocs -- ex-Hillary Rodham Clinton voters or white, working-class voters -- say that they are hesitant about supporting Obama, they overwhelmingly cite his lack of experience. Obviously, there's no way for Obama to suddenly gain more of it between now and Election Day. There are no secret extra credit points he can score. What he can do, however, is convince voters that he has the judgment and the character to lead. If McCain effectively undercuts Obama's ability to do this, he's in serious trouble.

This is why it's hard to understate the importance of Obama's convention speech. It's ironic that a guy who's spent almost $300 million on his campaign is still something of a blank slate to many voters. This is partly a symptom of a primary contest with few substantial differences between the candidates. But it's also about him. The convention will be his biggest opportunity to fill in those blanks.

Even so, it's not likely that we'll see a significant post-convention bounce. After all, not only does the Republican National Convention start just four days later, but McCain is expected to make his vice presidential announcement just a day after the lights go out at Invesco Field.

If Obama is successful in making his case in Denver, he'll still have to defend it in the debates. It's only after these debates that we should expect to see serious movement in polling. There's little reason for undecided voters to move one way or the other before then. Voters are smart enough to know that they have lots of time left before they cast their ballots. And they are more than happy to take that time. For months they've been hit over the head with talk of a "historic election" that could be the most important in a generation. If that's the case, shouldn't we expect that they would want to carefully weigh their vote?