Opinion by Matthew Dowd, ABC News Political Contributor
One debate down, two presidential debates and one vice presidential to go, so let’s take a look at the landscape.
By nearly all accounts, Obama won the first debate, even though it wasn’t overwhelming, but it will serve to give Obama a slight bump in the polls (which it already has) and solidify his single digit lead.
Since the debate, Obama is ahead pretty consistently by four to six points. And this lead is significant for a couple reasons.
First, as I have written previously, 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.
Second, as best I can tell, no one running for president since 1976 who has held a consistent lead after the first debate has ever lost. Strange things can happen, but McCain will have to surprise many if he comes back at this point.
So what happens next?
All the pressure is on Sarah Palin for the vice presidential debate. She goes in with many voters concerned about her answers to media questions over the last week or so. A significant number of Americans do not believe she is qualified to be president. And concern and infighting is beginning to surface among Republicans about her performance.
In fact, many Republicans are saying the problem is that the McCain campaign needs to "let Palin be Palin". (Hmmm, I remember well many folks saying that about Bush after some mistakes in his campaigns, and thinking, well, sometimes we didn’t want Bush to be Bush.)
This kind of statement by Republicans encourages me to add another rule to some rules I have come up with which are tell-tale signs a campaign is in trouble.
Rule One: When a campaign starts attacking the media, things aren’t going well.
Rule Two: When a campaign says the polls are wrong, things aren’t very good.
Rule Three: When a campaign says "the only poll that counts is the one on election day" usually means a campaign is about to lose.
Now we could probably add a new one: when partisans start saying let the candidate be the candidate, it means things are off course.
What will McCain and Palin do at this point? My guess is the campaign will encourage Palin to make some off the wall accusations at the debate in order to get under Biden’s skin, and hope he makes a mistake by engaging her too passionately.
Or maybe McCain will fly to Afghanistan and look for Osama Bin Laden himself. You just never know.
At this point, this race is Obama’s to lose, and absent a significant mistake it will be tough for McCain to win. McCain’s destiny is no longer in his hands. Though in a strange election, strange things can happen.