Beware the man in the mask. When Sen. Barack Obama lifted up the plastic to reveal his cameo on "Saturday Night Live," the script had him deliver a warning that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had best heed.
"Well, you know, Hillary, I have nothing to hide," Obama said. "I enjoy being myself. I'm not going to change who I am just because it's Halloween."
Obama's nationally televised unmasking came at a time where the nation wants a superhero. And it came at a pivotal moment in the presidential race -- with Clinton trying to lock down her substantial lead, while her rivals mount challenges that encapsulate all the complications of the Clinton years.
The context here is broad and deep. A year before the next president is chosen, voters are fed up -- angry at President Bush, yes, but expressing widespread discontent with leaders of both parties. Bush's approval ratings still hover near his all-time low, and the new ABC News/Washington Post poll also has approval rates for Democratic leaders in Congress at their lowest level since 1995.
"Decade-high discontent marks the political landscape a year before the 2008 election, with economic worries compounding the public's war weariness, deep dissatisfaction with the sitting president -- and growing disapproval of the Democratic-led Congress," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes. "A clear demand is for change; 75 percent want to see the next president lead the nation in a direction different from Bush's."
Clinton, D-N.Y., wants to provide that change, and the poll shows continued across-the-board dominance for the Democratic frontrunner (on every attribute save "honesty" -- take that how you will). She's still up 49-26 over Obama, D-Ill., and beats all the major Republicans in hypothetical head-to-head match-ups.
But her edge over Obama is 10 points smaller than it was in the last ABC/Washington Post poll (and other than Clinton and Obama, the field is remarkably stagnant.) As Clinton builds to her institutional support (Walter Mondale is the latest former nominee to join her cause) Obama and former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., are just starting to hammer home their message that Clinton is the candidate of the status quo.
"She operates within a corrupt system and defends it," Edwards said on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos. "She says she will be the agent for change. Well, I just don't think that's going to happen."
As for Obama, he is "walking a fine line when highlighting the differences with Clinton," ABC's Sunlen Miller reports, but the lines he's delivering are almost interchangeable with Edwards': "She's run what Washington would call a 'textbook' campaign," Obama said Saturday in South Carolina. "But the problem is the textbook itself. It's a textbook that's all about winning elections, but says nothing about how to bring the country together to solve problems."
Obama sharpened that argument in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Mike Dorning: "People's views are set on her. And [with a Clinton nomination] you're going to basically see a repetition of the 2000 and 2004 elections, in the sense that the country's divided and both parties will be working at the margins to tip the election just barely in their favor."