One way to envision the McCain-Obama presidential race is as a
boxing match — particularly like the famous Muhammed Ali championship
The deliberate John McCain
is like a Sonny Liston or George Foreman trying to cut the ring in half
and force his lighter-footed opponent onto the ropes. For Mr. McCain,
this comes in the form of numerous proposed town-hall debates, where he
hopes that face-to-face questions and answers will fall on his
less-seasoned opponent like sudden haymakers.
In turn, Barack Obama
is like Ali; his style is to keep moving — and stay out of reach of his
opponent. Mr. Obama does this through rhetorically masterful addresses
to large, adoring crowds. He knows the more Mr. McCain is forced to
spar at a distance via set speeches in front of a teleprompter, the
more he wears down the elder senator, who appears outclassed on the
Or maybe the better analogy is Aesop's fable of the tortoise and the
hare. At 71, a slower Mr. McCain keeps plodding along at a steady pace,
hoping an overconfident, dashing Mr. Obama will rest on his wide lead
in many polls, coast, make some more gaffes, and then let him crawl on
by. Something like that happened in the Republican primary when the
once dead-last, written-off John McCain eventually walked past all his
Pundits talk a lot about Mr. Obama's current 12-15 point lead in the
recent L.A. Times/Bloomberg and Newsweek polls. Less noticed is that
the two are dead even in the venerable Gallup survey — not to mention
that we have more than four months to go until election.
At some point, the steady Mr. McCain hopes crowds will tire of the
glitzy "hope and change" rallies and demand that the soaring Mr. Obama
comes down to earth to focus on more mundane, detailed positions that
will alienate part of the electorate and so cut down his lead.
Mr. McCain must also feel like the mythical Menelaus, who tried to
wrestle with the malleable Proteus, the sea god who turned into all
sorts of different creatures to evade capture. Each time Mr. McCain
thinks he can catch hold of Mr. Obama, the agile senator changes shape
and slips away.
The embarrassing Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Mr. Obama has evolved from "I
can no more disown him" to going well beyond that by quitting Trinity
United Church of Christ altogether.
How about Mr. McCain's effort to tackle Obama as a blinkered
protectionist who wants to overturn the North American Free Trade
Agreement? No longer. Now Mr. Obama dismisses his recent protectionist
talk as "overheated and amplified" rhetoric while campaigning in
Can Mr. McCain the combat veteran still take down Mr. Obama as the
liberal proponent of gun control? Nope. Mr. Obama says he supports the
recent Supreme Court decision striking down Washington, D.C., gun laws
— attributing his earlier approval of similar gun-control legislation
to the indiscretions of an aide who filled out a questionnaire wrongly.
Mr. McCain couldn't even hold the changeable Mr. Obama to his
primary pledge to use public campaign funds, and thereby cut down his
opponent's significant edge in private cash contributions. The
cash-rich Mr. Obama has now sworn off public financing.
Horse imagery works for the two candidates as well. Mr. Obama seems
more a youthful ("She rocks!" he shouts about Hillary Clinton to a
crowd), frisky and sometimes impatient stallion. Mr. McCain is, of
course, the old warhorse, his mobility curtailed from old wounds but
still ready for combat.
Mr. McCain's sometimes-pained expressions show he has been through
all this before in the 2000 primary campaign against George Bush (not
too mention weathering two terms in the House and four in the Senate).
But for Mr. Obama, midway through his first Senate term, a presidential
run must seem entirely new and fascinating.
This campaign is not just about liberal/conservative or
Democrat/Republican. As voters, we have to ask ourselves other more
fundamental questions this time around with two such antithetical
choices: How do we define competency and leadership when a war veteran
is set against an antiwar idealist, when one who has seen it all is
challenged by one who still wants to see it all, when experience and
deliberation are set against hope and change?
Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama are archetypes who transcend the usual
politics. And that's why we can evoke everything from boxing to the
Ancient Greeks to figure out who should win.
But as the two candidates in the months ahead debate the war, energy
woes and a troubled economy, the election ultimately will come down to
whether more Americans think a workmanlike old pro can see us through
one more time or more think the times demand we gamble on a charismatic
newcomer who promises us deliverance.