McCain races towards a dead end
ANALYSIS:Erratic, irascible, fidgety - it is John McCain who looks like a cornered loser, while Barack Obama exhibits cool intelligence and grace under pressure, writes DENIS STAUNTON
UNLESS SOMETHING truly dramatic and unforeseen happens in the next four weeks, Barack Obama will sweep to victory next month as the first African-American to win a presidential election - perhaps by a landslide.
For John McCain, Tuesday's debate in Nashville was at best a draw and the Republican has just one more opportunity to challenge Obama face to face - a chance that may come too late in a race that is rapidly slipping away.
"Debates very seldom make fundamental changes in a race unless one of the candidates makes a huge mistake," McCain's senior strategist Charlie Black told me after the Nashville debate. "In no poll will you see John McCain's unfavourable rating go up as a result of this tonight."
That's not enough for a candidate who is now struggling to defend states that have long been solidly Republican, who is being outspent three-to-one in the battleground and has already retreated from Michigan, until recently one of his most promising targets.
According to an analysis of recent polls by independent political website Real Clear Politics (www.realclearpolitics.com), Obama is ahead in enough states to give him 364 electoral votes - 94 more than the 270 needed to win the election. Obama has a comfortable lead in enough states to give him 264 electoral votes, while McCain can only feel sure of winning 163.
The shift in the race towards Obama is clearly reflected in the candidates' schedules: McCain and his running-mate Sarah Palin now spend almost all their time campaigning in states George Bush won in 2004; when Obama left Nashville yesterday, he went to Indiana, a state that has not backed the Democrat in a presidential election since 1964.
Obama is also campaigning and advertising heavily in traditionally conservative southern states like Virginia and North Carolina, where he is either ahead or tied with McCain.
Everything looked very different last month, when Palin's star turn at the Republican national convention re-energised her party's ticket and put Obama's campaign off its stride.
Palin had a few wobbles after that, notably in interviews with ABC's Charlie Gibson and CBS's Katie Couric, but she remains fundamentally an asset to the Republican campaign, attracting huge crowds, boosting fundraising and exciting the conservative base of volunteers.
McCain's real trouble came with the meltdown on Wall Street and Washington's efforts to contain the economic damage.
The Republican made his first mistake by declaring that the fundamentals of the US economy were sound - which came as news to millions of Americans watching their home values plunge, their retirement savings shrink, their wages stagnate and their jobs becoming more uncertain.
He suspended his campaign and rushed to Washington to deal with the crisis, threatening to skip the first presidential debate - only to change his mind at the last minute.
He promised to bring Republicans on board in support of a $700 billion bailout of Wall Street, but most of the party's congressmen rejected the measure when it first came before the House of Representatives.
The bailout Bill that eventually passed with McCain's support was stuffed with more than $100 billion of the kind of pork-barrel spending the Republican team has spent much of the campaign railing against.
Obama, by contrast, appeared calm throughout the crisis, exercising quiet leadership within the Democratic Party and calling for national unity to tackle the credit crunch while blaming it all on the Bush economic policies McCain has supported for the past eight years.
Obama's calm was on display again in Nashville as he sat quietly during McCain's answers before winning point after point with deft, lethal counterpunches.
McCain, by contrast, fidgeted, scribbled and roamed around the stage while Obama was speaking, and interspersed his own remarks with jokes and quips that usually fell flat.
A number of times during the debate, McCain declared that these dangerous times require "a cool hand on the tiller", but most voters watching the two candidates must have concluded that the younger man was by far the cooler of the two.
McCain still has almost four weeks to turn the race around and his campaign staff are working hard to raise questions about Obama's character, his background and his trustworthiness.
The Democrat's tenuous relationship with William Ayers, a Chicago professor who helped to found an urban guerrilla group in the 1960s, does not disqualify him to be president even for many Republicans.
But the McCain camp believes that highlighting the Ayers association, along with Obama's history with other controversial figures like his former pastor Jeremiah Wright, can reinforce persistent doubts about the Democrat in voters' minds.
Republicans are encouraged by what happened in the final weeks of the Democratic primary battle, when Hillary Clinton staged a strong comeback just as Obama appeared to be walking away with the nomination.
Key strategist Black says the McCain campaign is used to reading its own obituary in the newspapers and that the Republican can still pull off a surprise in November.
"Those of us who've been working for John McCain for two years have been reading it for two years. We weren't supposed to be the nominee and we weren't supposed to stay in the race last summer. Being the underdog doesn't bother any of us," he says.
Obama is a more difficult target today, however, not least because Americans have had an opportunity to watch him under pressure and he has impressed them with his even temper and cool intelligence.
A startling revelation about Obama or a national security crisis at home or abroad could yet change the course of the race in McCain's favour. But he faces into the final weeks of the campaign, outspent, out-organised and increasingly out of touch with the national mood. McCain must know that time is fast running out.
• Denis Staunton is Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times