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Voters through with surprises

John McCain's September suspension, designed to change a trajectory that showed Barack Obama starting to build a solid front-runner's hold on the race, instead may have sealed his fate.
/ Source: National Journal

Welcome to October. Tenth month in the Gregorian calendar. Known for its yellow leaves, orange pumpkins, white-knuckled campaign staffers... and red-phone political "surprises."

Ah, the vaunted October surprise. The words alone evoke titillating images of tabloid-style headlines, wild-eyed pundits, tongue-tied candidates and tracking polls brimming with volatility. Late in the 2000 campaign, you'll recall, George W. Bush's 24-year-old DUI arrest record surfaced and nearly cost him the race. Four years later, Osama bin Laden released his "I'm still here" videotape, helping guarantee Bush's narrow re-election win.

But not this month, I'd bet. Not this year.

There's a certain irony, during the 21st month of this campaign, in suggesting that a "surprise" is even remotely possible. Given the ongoing crisis on Wall Street, however, the bigger factor is that voters wouldn't go for it.

Unfortunately for those who love the rush that flows when that last-minute game-changer breaks -- and really, who doesn't? -- voters have placed a premium on calm in this race's final crisis-ridden month. For the first time since the months that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there's a palpable, sober disdain for self-inflicted drama. Lipstick, pigs, pregnant daughters and terrorist fist-jabs have no place here now. The real-life drama unfolding on our TV screens has turned voters into knee-jerk skeptics, which makes me fairly certain that neither camp will dare yell "Surprise!" before Nov. 4. The backlash would prove stronger than the lash.

It's a lesson 's campaign learned the hard way last week. His September Suspension, designed to change a trajectory that showed starting to build a solid front-runner's hold on the race, instead may have sealed his fate. Last week turned into a debacle that he'll be hard-pressed to reverse over the next five weeks.

The problem, in hindsight, was simple: Voters just didn't buy it. A new USA Today/Gallup poll taken over the weekend shows that McCain fared far worse than Obama in handling the economic crisis and congressional negotiations over the bailout plan. Forty-six percent of respondents viewed Obama's performance favorably, 43 percent viewed it unfavorably. For McCain, the numbers were particularly daunting: 37 percent approved, while 53 percent disapproved. Congressional leaders both Democratic and Republican, along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and President Bush, also fared poorly.

It got worse for McCain. A New York Times/CBS News poll [PDF] released last week showed his overall favorable ratings plunging 6 percentage points in less than two weeks. The Hotline/Diageo poll [PDF] showed that the percentage of voters who think McCain is better prepared than Obama to handle the economy fell 9 points in four days, from 43 percent [PDF] on Sept. 22 to 34 percent on Sept. 26 (he has since rebounded to 38 percent). Meanwhile the enthusiasm gap, which had narrowed following McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, widened again; the percentage of voters who said they're "enthusiastically" supporting the GOP ticket fell 6 points in four days.

A big part of McCain's problem -- both in this crisis and throughout this campaign -- is that big "R" next to his name. A new shows voters blame congressional Republicans instead of Democrats for the crisis, by a 44-to-21 split. One-quarter of respondents said Bush was responsible -- compared with just 8 percent who say it's the fault of the Democrat-led Congress.

All of which raises a key question: Will the most fascinating White House campaign in decades be decided by the second-most-important political story of the year?