Democrats begin their national convention with a queasy feeling in the pits of their stomachs. Barack Obama has plunged in the polls, falling into a statistical tie with John McCain. The election that was supposed to be in the bag isn't.
Democrats blame the plunge on negative ads. They plan to respond in kind. The first few days of their convention will feature nonstop assaults on the presumptive GOP nominee.
The Democrats' strategy is driven by what they think happened to John Kerry in 2004. His plans to run as a war hero came a cropper when 15 of the 23 officers who served with him in Vietnam declared him "Unfit for Command." Democrats believe Sen. Kerry's sluggish response to their charges is what cost him the presidency. Sen. Obama has declared he will not be "swift-boated."
But the Democratic strategy has two serious flaws. The first is the blithe assumption by Democrats that if voters prefer the Republican candidate, it has to be because the Republican played a dirty trick. The thought that voters might prefer the Republican because of perceived shortcomings in the Democrat never crosses their minds.
It should. The Swifties' charges hit home because they were credible and came from a credible source. It is Sen. Obama's inexperience and ego, not the brilliance of Sen. McCain's ad writers, that have made his ads mocking Sen. Obama's celebrity status resonate.
The second is their tendency to confuse rudeness with toughness. Liberal bloggers imagine they're being tough when they use profane language to say nasty things about their opponents.
Whining isn't toughness, either. After Sen. McCain bested their man at Pastor Rick Warren's presidential forum last weekend, Sen. Obama staffers told reporters the old white guy must have cheated. Mr. Obama complained, falsely, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Tuesday that Mr. McCain has been questioning his patriotism.
Nor is braggadocio. In North Carolina on Tuesday, Mr. Obama said: "John McCain doesn't know what he's up against."
"All that is missing is the quivering lip and foot-stomping," wrote Jennifer Rubin of Commentary Magazine's blog about Mr. Obama's remarks in North Carolina. "I am too tough! I am not going to lose! Presidential it is not. Panicky and defensive it is." There's more to being tough than talking tough. Unless Sen. Obama resolves rising doubts about his toughness, talking tough just makes him seem wimpier.
Democrats plan to paint Mr. McCain as the reincarnation of George W. Bush. This will be difficult to do, since it is so obviously untrue.
Not that truth has been much of a barrier to a Democratic line of attack. Obama surrogates have been referring to Sen. McCain as "Exxon John" because both he and the giant oil company favor offshore drilling. But Exxon employees have given more money to Mr. Obama ($42,100) than to Mr. McCain ($35,166), and Mr. Obama voted for the 2005 energy bill that gave massive tax breaks to oil companies, while Mr. McCain voted against it because he opposed those tax breaks.
But even if Democrats succeed in tarnishing Mr. McCain, it won't solve their fundamental problem, because this election is mostly about Barack Obama. Who is he? What does he really believe? Does he know enough, is he strong enough to lead?
"McCain's message is pretty clear and essentially twofold," wrote liberal blogger Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. "Obama is, in so many words, a frivolous phony, someone who really doesn't have any business running for president. McCain is a strong leader who can defend the country.
"From Obama, honestly, I don't sense a really clear message," Mr. Marshall said. "There are attacks on McCain, some of which are quite good. There are positive, uplifting commercials ... But it's hard for me to come up with a clear-cut Obama message in the way that it's pretty simple for me to do with McCain."
If Mr. Obama wants to stop his slide in the polls, he must recognize he has been chiefly responsible for it. If people think Mr. Obama has a big head and a thin skin, he must act in a way that belies that. He must be more forthcoming about his past. And when he makes a mistake or changes a position, he should acknowledge it.
Mr. Obama has to be clear about where he plans to lead the country and explain why he is qualified to do so. Hopenchange won't cut it anymore. His acceptance speech in Denver will be the most important of his life. What will he say?
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Toledo Blade ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1476).