The polling numbers in today's Washington Post offer nothing more than a pit stop in a long-distance car race. But still. If the race today matched John McCain against Hillary Clinton, he'd have the support of 49 percent of voters to her 46 percent. If McCain took on Barack Obama today, the Illinois Democrat would be in front 49 to 46.
What the poll doesn't say is that Hillary Clinton already is running her best laps. She's got the gas to the floor. Barring the entrance of a third-wheel, right-wing Republican jalopy into the race -- and none has been advertised -- McCain likely would extend that lead and beat her to the finish line with some ease.
Obama, on the other hand, continues to gain momentum in this race. With each passing month, he handles his campaign car that much better. He's gotten tougher, quicker, without losing the ability to look way down the road, to see the whole map. Come the finish line, he beats McCain, pulling away and pulling a Democratic House and Senate with him.
Enough with the analogy. How about presidential politics? Listen to David Gergen, the Kennedy School of Government professor who worked for the Clinton White House: "She (Hillary) has not found the campaign theme yet," he tells The Boston Globe.
One year into the campaign, with some of the savviest political minds in America behind her and Hillary Clinton has not found her campaign theme yet? She's still talking about 35 years experience and managing from Day 1. She's talking about toughness and the intricacies of policy. She's always competent, never inspirational. And, besides that, her message won't work against McCain, a man with competence, experience and the resume of a hero.
I have nothing against Hillary Clinton. She's smart. She's undoubtedly an excellent manager. She is tough. She'd probably be a very good president. She just won't win. Because in a race for the middle, this country still leans conservative. Because the American people are tired of looking back, so tired that they've to some extent mixed up Bill Clinton's largely positive legacy with the cumulative disaster of Bush I and Bush II. Because Hillary Clinton believes that politics is war even though, ironically, politics is one war both the American people and John McCain have had their fill of.
Enter Barack Obama, the man with a Kansan mother, an African father, a Hawaiian childhood. He talks of hope, of change, of bringing the country together. He can and does run against the Iraq war and the war of Washington politics as usual. He seems to live the politics of inclusion. But, as he's shown, with the Billary campaign in South Carolina, he can take a hit and fight back.
Most importantly for Democrats, he can win. He has inspired new generations in a campaign that will pit him against a 71-year-old war hero. He has consistently won the independent vote over his Democratic rivals and would compete well against a Republican opponent whose strength is with independents. Unlike Clinton, he will not mobilize the somewhat demoralized Republican right-wing base against him.
The trouble is, he's still the longshot to win the Democratic nomination. Clinton has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment. She and her husband have doled out favors for a long time. Clinton captures the imagination of women, particularly those 40, 50 and older who grew up banging their heads against a glass ceiling. And she has the loyal backing of many in the Latino population, a major voting block in key western states that doesn't fully know or trust Obama, yet, and feels at home with Bill and Hillary. Taken together, these give her a formidable edge, a wide-body limo with little room for Obama's sleeker Corvette to sneak past.
That perhaps will be the irony of 2008. If the primaries were spread across many months as in past years, I believe Obama would gain the momentum to race off with the nomination. This year, with Super Duper Tuesday, with too many votes in too short a time, it's a sprint. with Clinton drawing the advantage of the rail position.
Waiting down the track sometime this summer will be John McCain. He'll have his own wide-body limo and one with a lot more traction across the heartland of America. Should Clinton get to him first -- should she win the Democratic nomination -- the Democratic faithful, and particularly the Baby Boomers, will have no one else to blame but themselves.
Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He can be reached at email@example.com.