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Where did Barack Obama's mojo go?

July 31, 2008 |  2:04 am

Something's going on. Or some things.

A new CNN/Opinion Research poll out Wednesday shows that despite nine solid days of blanket media coverage from overseas with Barack Obama cheered by adoring throngs of Germans and parlez-vousing with the French, making a three-point shot in the Middle East and standing outside No. 10 Downing Street, the freshman Illinois Democratic presidential nominee to be Senator Barack Obama of Illinois stayed static in the polls despite his well-covered long foreign tripsenator is stuck right where he was in the polls before he left.

No bounce. Not even a roll.

He still leads Republican Sen. John McCain 51% to 44%. But it's the same 51-44 as last time.

A CNN poll average shows an even slimmer 48-45 Obama lead, dangerously close for an experienced opponent who relishes being the underdog.

"Obama has not picked up any ground against McCain on foreign issues," says CNN Polling Director Keating Holland. "And some 52% think McCain would do a better job than Obama on the war in Iraq -- virtually the same number who felt that way in April."

Other polls show the same stubborn one-digit lead holding for the Democratic nominee-to-be with only 96 days left until the general election. Some crucial state polls even show McCain gaining.

Obama seems to have everything going for him. A fresh face. A smooth, cadenced speaking style suited for TV. A message of change at a time when Americans historically favor change, after one party holds the White House for two terms. And after several convictions of GOP legislators.

Obama's got tons of money. An attractive family. Energized followers. A media that's curious about the new guy and tired of ...

... the dogged old POW one. High gas prices, a poor housing market, a two-front war ongoing and a slightly sagging economy, all of which should help political challengers. Not to mention an unpopular incumbent president.

A lead's a lead, but political strategists are puzzled.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, the last sitting senator to win the presidency, announced his candidacy on Jan. 2. In 10 months he not only won the Democratic nomination in a blaze of freshness, but he beat 47-year-old Richard M. Nixon, who'd been a prominent vice president for eight years and a House member and senator before that.

Obama's had nearly twice that long to campaign. He's barely ahead and should be pulling away. But isn't. How to explain this?

Well, it is summer -- vacation time when millions of Americans are actually having personal fun, enjoying "The Dark Knight" and the bright beach, just before the back-to-school sales. It's already been a long campaign -- 19 months -- for everyone to pay attention all the time. And the interregnum between winning the nominations and getting them is a long, hot one.

Also, the down side to "fresh face" is "little-known face." Obama's still a very new character on the national stage. And though Europeans have shown they can fall in love with an American politician during one speech in a platz, Americans historically take much longer to grow comfortable with a potential national father figure.

For a large number of Americans who don't make up their minds anymore according to their parents' "D" or "R," they let the anecdotal impressions of candidates accumulate over time to create a larger, whole portrait for their gut ballot decision. The TV debates could be crucial.

Despite awfully quick denials by party officials and the smiling summit of Obama and Hillary Clinton in Unity, N.H., is the Democratic Party perhaps more severely fractured than it looks? Is race Barack Obama's chief campaign strategist David Axelrodmore important than many let on?

The Iraq war and Obama's much-touted early opposition to it have seemed to shrink in importance in direct proportion to the dramatic drop in U.S. casualties.

A focus so far has been on McCain's age, but are others maybe wary of Obama's relative youth and public inexperience?

Several strategists of both parties sense that Americans want to vote for Obama, but something is holding them back. Or several somethings, as we suggested up top.

Maybe Obama's flips -- his outspoken opposition to denouncing the Rev. Jeremiah Wright until he did; his promise to take public campaign financing, since broken; his eagerness to debate McCain in town halls, now abandoned; his apparent unwillingness to see progress in the Iraq troop surge, which he opposed and predicted would worsen sectarian violence?

Is there a simmering concern over arrogance by the Ivy League lawyer and mere candidate who so blithely patted the French president on the back for a well-done news conference? Asked the other day if he ever doubted himself, Obama replied smartly, "Never!" And grinned broadly. Sounded more like a 20-year-old than someone about to turn 47 next week. 

Americans bought George W. Bush's message of changing Washington in 2000. But he was a governor coming from Austin, Texas. Americans like governors as chief executives; four of the last five presidents were governors first.

Voters have proved more suspicious of legislators. This year they have no more choice; it'll be only the third time in American history a sitting (or standing) senator has been elected to the White House.

Obama's talking change too. But he's a legislator who's been in Washington three years now, two of them as a member of a Democratic-controlled Congress that was elected in 2006 with great promise but currently holds historically low favorability ratings.

What's Obama done for D.C. change since arriving? What's Obama done for reform back home within the historically monolithic and corrupt Chicago Democratic machine, where some up-and-comers are sent off to Congress for seasoning before advancing to the big time of City Council?

The longer the Obama campaign goes without pulling comfortably ahead of the former fighter pilot who was trained to stay on his opponent's tail, the more worrisome it'll become for chief strategist David Axelrod (see photo) and others behind the closed doors in their Windy City headquarters.

A good reason maybe to consider a jump-start: perhaps advance the announcement of his running mate, get another fresh (or maybe not-so-fresh) face out there to draw news coverage while Obama takes a week of well-deserved vacation like so many other Americans, who could care less about the static polls these days.

-- Andrew Malcolm

Photo credit: Associated Press (above); Chicago Tribune (below).

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