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The State Of The Race

There's a remarkable unanimity among the polls right now that Barack Obama leads John McCain by about six points. Is this just a nomination bounce? Maybe. But maybe it's a lead that Obama isn't likely to relinquish.

Everybody has said for a while that the fundamentals of the race are very strong for Obama. This is reflected in the latest poll, from NBC/Wall Street Journal. By a margin of 51%-35%, voters prefer a Democrat over a Republican as the next president. Yes, Obama is running far behind that generic preference, beating McCain by just 6. But you wonder how much better McCain can do. He's already 10 points ahead of the generic showing. How much room for growth can there be?

The same poll shows white suburban women would prefer a Democratic president by an 11 point margin, and would vote for Hillary Clinton over McCain by 14 points, but McCain wins them right now by 6. It seems to me that Obama is more likely than McCain  to make up ground with this group. McCain's general appeal is considerable, but it's a distinctly male appeal. He's all about war and heroism and manliness. He's not a kitchen table issue guy. And on social issues, his stated positions -- granted, he doesn't care about them very much -- are extremely conservative. More campaigning and more information probably won't be McCain's friend here.

Obama ran a lengthy primary where the themes that will be used against him in the general election were heavily aired. McCain did not. It stands to reason that the major negatives against Obama are pretty widely known, while many of McCain's negatives -- his support for Social Security privatization, his radical health care plan, his social positions -- are not.

Moreover, when you look at the big events to come, they seem to favor Obama more than McCain:

1. The Republican Convention may be a mixed bag for McCain -- President Bush is going to have to make a major speech, and that can't help McCain.

2. The Democratic Convention, by contrast, should be an unmitigated boon for Obama, as it will showcase him doing what he does best before an audience vastly larger than any that has seen him make a speech before.

3. The debates will probably go well for Obama, too. McCain is trying to disqualify his opponent as a potential commander-in-chief. All Obama has to do to clear the bar is show some competent understanding of foreign policy, which shouldn't be hard -- indeed, McCain has made a lot more foreign policy gaffes than Obama so far.

4. Finally, Obama may enjoy an enormous financial edge. It's hard to say how much this will help -- has there ever been such a huge disparity in a presidential race? -- but it sure can't hurt.

McCain's campaign has been pre-spinning the current situation as a post-primary honeymoon for Obama. But it's possible that Obama is at the beginning, not the end, of unifying the Democratic Party -- he will bring more pro-Democratic voters to his side once the ideological lines become more clear.

Obviously there are tons of caveats here. I've only mentioned the known campaign events -- there could be any number of unknown ones, like a terrorist strike or a huge Bittergate-style gaffe. It's striking, though, how much better it looks for Obama now than it did a month ago, when Rev. Wright and Bittergate were making lots of observers deem him almost unelectable. As they say in sports, you're never as good as you look when you're winning, and you're never as bad as you look when you're losing. McCain will have some good moments. But it's hard to see McCain's path to victory without some big external event helping him out.

--Jonathan Chait