SEN. Barack Obama has the lead for the time being. But three signposts point the way to a McCain landslide in November, in the unlikely event the Arizona senator has the wit to heed them.
What figures to be by far the most important issue this fall is the skyrocketing price of energy and its deleterious effect on the broader economy and national security.
Now that Sen. John McCain has flip-flopped on drilling off our coasts, there is a substantial difference between him and Mr. Obama on the issue. Mr. McCain also supports building more nuclear power plants, which Mr. Obama opposes.
Opinion polls indicate a large majority supports drilling for oil off our coasts and in Alaska. That majority is likely to expand and harden as gas prices rise this summer. But Mr. McCain can't fully capitalize politically on this change in public attitude unless he completes his flip-flop and consents to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz fears Mr. McCain's ego will prevent him from doing what is in his, and his country's, interest: "So, McCain 2 makes a big speech about offshore drilling and the need for it. Fine. But the message is muted and confused. Why? Because McCain 1 voted against oil exploration and field development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and McCain 2 doesn't want to look like a flip-flopper by changing his stand on the matter. ... In acting out of a combination of holier-than-thou piety and political pique, McCain 1 has made it all but impossible for McCain 2 to run with this issue and go on the offensive with Mr. Obama on a matter of central concern to the American people."
I fear Mr. Podhoretz is correct. But few Americans would hold flip-flopping against Mr. McCain, because they've flip-flopped, too. Soccer moms genuflected to environmental pieties when gasoline was $2 a gallon. But now that they have to sell their firstborn to fill up their SUVs, their attitude has changed dramatically.
If Mr. McCain were to fly to ANWR and announce his change of heart there, the attendant publicity would make it clear to Americans the sharp difference between himself and Mr. Obama on the issue most important to their pocketbooks. He supports letting Floridians and Californians decide whether there should be drilling off their coasts. Why shouldn't the same principle apply to Alaskans? A large majority favors drilling in ANWR.
The second signpost is Mr. Obama's clumsy embrace of a Sept. 10 attitude toward the war on terror. The law enforcement approach toward fighting it is precisely what led to 9/11. Fortunately, national security is the one issue Mr. McCain knows something about. The danger for him here is that he'll overemphasize it. The fact that we're winning the war on terror makes most Americans less interested in it, and more focused on economic concerns. Voter anxiety about Mr. Obama's fitness to be commander-in-chief is a strong subsidiary issue. But this election will be won or lost at the pump.
The third signpost was illuminated by the flap over the receipt by the now former head of Mr. Obama's vice presidential selection committee and two prominent U.S. senators of below-market-rate loans from Countrywide Finance, which Mr. Obama has charged is in large part responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis. One of those senators, Chris Dodd of Connecticut, is trying to push through Congress a bill that would, in effect, bail out Countrywide.
This glaring conflict of interest hasn't attracted much attention from the news media because for most journalists, a scandal isn't really a scandal unless Republicans are involved. But it's a tailor-made issue for Mr. McCain.
The signposts also indicate who Mr. McCain should choose for his running mate. No Republican can better make the case for drilling than Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and no governor has fought harder against corruption, especially in her own party.
So go to ANWR, Mr. McCain. Embrace Sarah Palin there. You'll have to eat some crow. But crow doesn't taste so bad if it's served on the White House china.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1476