The Note: Sarah Six-Pack

As three of the four folks on the tickets return to their day jobs Wednesday, pay attention to the fact that the fourth candidate has cracked open "Joe Six-Pack" in time for her cramming sessions.

Don't look now -- but has the race's outline been written? Blame it on the big things that are larger than the candidates -- the economic crisis, President Bush's historically awful approval ratings, the inability of any senator to soar in a period of national angst -- but where we stand today is essentially where we stood six weeks ago..

Which is one reason why that fourth candidate matters now more than ever. Gov. Sarah Palin puts herself on the line in Thursday's debate -- and will there be another single moment that's as big for the tenor of this race? Will there be another chance to shoot holes through the old outline and field dress a new one?

(How much of her performance will depend on who gets to set expectations -- "Saturday Night Live" or the mainstream media -- raising Palin's bar before our eyes?)

If this qualifies as daylight in the race, maybe we should get ready for a long night. The new ABC News/Washington Post poll speaks to an odd sort of stability that's set in despite shifts among independent voters -- resulting in a narrow but consistent lead for Sen. Barack Obama.

Obama saw his White Sox beat the Twins 1-0 to squeak into the playoffs Tuesday. But even very late leads can change.

"Barack Obama maintains an advantage on the economy, especially economic empathy, and he's cracked majority acceptance on his key challenge, experience. But the political center remains unrooted, keeping John McCain in the race, albeit against headwinds," ABC polling director Gary Langer writes.

"Movement continues among independents, quintessential swing voters and a highly changeable group this year," Langer writes. "They favored McCain by 10 points immediately after the Republican convention, swung to Obama last week and stand now at a close division between the two -- 48 percent for McCain, 45 percent for Obama in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll."

It's Obama 50, McCain 46 among likely voters -- looking closer than the nine points the poll pegged the race at a week ago, despite a debate where more respondents said Obama won.

And how do you play this? "Voters are deeply divided over the terms of the government's $700 billion economic rescue package but overwhelmingly fear that the House's rejection of the measure on Monday could deepen the country's financial woes," Dan Balz and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post.

Key insight? "Compared with a June poll, slightly more voters now call Obama a safe choice than said so of McCain (55 percent to 51 percent). Obama ticked up from 50 percent to 55 percent over past three months on that question, with the increase almost entirely among Democrats. McCain dropped from 57 percent to 51 percent, with independents contributing to the decline."

Obama does hit 50 again, and there's a psychological burden that comes with such polling: Obama winning means people getting used to the fact that Obama might win

"The equilibrium of this race seems to be Obama with a slight lead and this will soon begin to lock in. And with early voting starting soon in some states, every day Obama holds a lead means votes in the can," Matthew Dowd writes in his ABCNews.com blog.

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