The Undertow That Is Holding Obama Back

Voters' impressions, even wrong ones, seem to be a drag on the Democrat's campaign.

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Most Americans don't have the time or the desire to study everything about the presidential candidates, from their stands on the issues to their voting records in the Senate. So voters still have, at most, a sketchy idea about the ideologies of John McCain and Barack Obama. What does resonate, however, is the personal side of these two men, based on the myriad impressions gleaned from TV images, media interviews, and even rumors that have bubbled up or sunk in over many months of campaigning. A photo of Obama not saluting the flag may matter more than all his policy statements on Iraq. A brief story about McCain's latest test for skin cancer may raise more concerns than his admission that he doesn't know as much as he should about the economy.

The political has become the personal, and that's what will probably decide the November election. "People form a general impression of somebody that's as important as his stand on the issues," as long as a candidate doesn't appear too extreme, says Frank Donatelli, former White House political director for Ronald Reagan and now a key McCain strategist. Obama advisers agree that character and personality are weighing heavily in voters' minds—attributes such as likability, judgment, decisiveness, steadiness in a crisis, and sharing everyday people's values.

So far, it appears that McCain is winning the character derby. He comes across as a solid, experienced leader and an old-fashioned "protector" who can be reassuring in troubled times. This explains his gradual movement upward in the polls while Obama has remained stuck in place below 50 percent. The McCain campaign wants America to believe that Obama doesn't have the judgment, the experience, and the temperament to be commander in chief. "We hope we convince the public to believe McCain is the safe choice, a good leader, even if you disagree with him on policy," says Donatelli. Adds a former adviser to an also-ran GOP presidential candidate this year: "This is becoming a contest of attributes—Obama's inexperience versus McCain's decades of service in the military and Senate."

McCain still has serious problems, though. His views seem too close to those of the unpopular President Bush. He generates little excitement. People are worried about whether, at 71, he is too old to be commander in chief. They aren't sure what he really stands for as he struggles to present a cohesive message on the economy, healthcare, education, energy, and other issues.

Caricatures. But Obama has a different and possibly more challenging set of problems. He derides the GOP caricature, noting that the Republicans want voters to believe he is some kind of alien creature who has a "funny name" and doesn't look like any of the past presidents. Some McCain loyalists argue that Obama is playing the "race card"—unfairly accusing the GOP of using his African-American background against him. That remains unclear. But Obama is right to be worried about the negative caricature that has sunk in very deeply with many voters, especially white working-class and rural Americans who supported Hillary Clinton in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

On a recent reporting trip to rural Muskingum County in Ohio, a key swing state, I was surprised at the number of such voters who, during person-on-the-street interviews, volunteered erroneous bits of information about Obama. Among them were long-discredited rumors that he doesn't salute the flag and that he is a Muslim. Others complained that he seems to have no sense of humor and is too "robotic." The Rev. Jeremiah Wright's inflammatory criticism of America when he was Obama's pastor in Chicago also raised concern.

This was not a scientific sample and included only about two dozen interviews. But the comments drove home the point that Obama has a long way to go in reassuring some voters that he is a mainstream leader who understands their problems and can deliver results.

Many white working-class Americans, worried about competition for their jobs and anxious about the future, seem to harbor vague fears that Obama will side too much with fellow African-Americans in setting policy. Beyond that, says a prominent Democratic pollster, "it fits into the modern racism framework. Some people don't think an African-American has the same values that whites do. It stems from a belief that Obama is 'different' because African-Americans are 'different.' "