There have been times in the past few weeks when the US presidential race could have been mistaken for an episode of The Jerry Springer Show.
By Andrew Ward in Washington
John McCain and Barack Obama were arguing about pigs and lipstick and sex education in kindergarten, while the media focused on Sarah Palin and her pregnant teenage daughter.
All that has now changed, as the Wall Street financial crisis forces the candidates and media into a more grown-up conversation.
After a period during which Ms Palin’s skills as a moose hunter looked capable of altering the outcome of the election, voters have suddenly refocused on more sober questions about each candidate’s economic credentials.
Both candidates have offered similar responses to the crisis, each blaming lax regulation for the meltdown and promising to toughen government oversight of Wall Street. With so little difference between them, much will depend on whose promise of change proves more convincing and which of the pair establishes greater credibility on the economy.
Most but not all polls show Mr Obama with a narrow lead over Mr McCain when voters are asked who they have most confidence in on economic issues. But the picture is muddied by doubts about his experience and leadership qualities, which could become more important as voters fret about the safety of their savings and investments.
“In times of crisis, voters look for strong and decisive leadership. Currently, McCain is viewed by voters as a stronger leader and a more competent manager. He needs to play this up and Obama needs to steal this mantle,” said Daniel Clifton, political analyst at Strategas Research Partners. “With less than 50 days to go [Obama] has failed to make this connection with voters and how he responds to this situation could be a key turning point.”
So far, opinion polls show the crisis working in Mr Obama’s favour, with a raft of new surveys yesterday giving him a lead of 3-5 percentage points. This marks a turnround from the small lead opened by Mr McCain since the Republican convention. “The election narrative has changed and recent events could mark a turning point for Democrats,” said Mr Clifton.
McCain’s double challenge
For Mr McCain, the renewed focus on the economy poses a double challenge. First, it increases the importance of distancing himself from the incumbent Republican administration that many voters blame for the crisis. Polls show he has made progress in doing that since naming Ms Palin as his running mate and casting them both as reform-minded mavericks. But a New York Times poll on Thursday found that 57 per cent of people still viewed him as a “typical Republican” and only 37 per cent believed he would deliver change, compared with two-thirds who said Mr Obama would.
Second, it has heaped fresh scrutiny on Mr McCain’s economic credentials, which, by his own admission, are weaker than his experience in foreign policy and national security. He has spent months trying to repair the damage from his statement during the Republican primaries that, “the issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should have”.
McCain campaign officials this week pointed to his years as chairman of the Senate commerce committee as evidence of his economic clout.
However, it was in that role that the Arizona senator forged his reputation as an aggressive deregulator, allowing Democrats to question the credibility of his new-found enthusiasm for tough regulation this week.
Republicans point out, with some validity, that Mr Obama’s economic experience is at least as flimsy.
But, as the candidate of the unpopular incumbent party, the burden is on Mr McCain to prove his ability to do a better job than George W. Bush. “As a Republican, McCain faces a greater liability and needs to have a bolder and more specific response to the crisis,” says Mr Clifton.
Both candidates are turning to a cast of heavyweight advisers to lend credibility to their economic plans.
Mr Obama has this week frequently consulted Robert Rubin and Larry Summers, both former Treasury secretaries from the Bill Clinton administration, and Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve.
Mr McCain has sought advice from Martin Feldstein, a former Reagan adviser and director of AIG, and John Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, who engineered the bank’s emergency merger with Bank of America.