LAMBRO: Changing of the guard

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DENVER.

Barack Obama had his work cut out for him coming into this week’s Democratic National Convention. Democrats said after two years of running for president, Americans still did not know him well. Polls showed he had fallen behind John McCain on key issues. The Republicans had beaten him up pretty bad throughout the month of August.

Pollster John Zogby remarked the other day that “As the Democrats head into their convention, should they be singing the Eurythmics 1985 hit ‘Here Comes That Sinking Feeling’?”

“McCain has been the aggressor for the last month, seeing an opportunity to define Obama for voters before Obama could define himself. At times, it has seemed like he has been the only one throwing any punches,” Mr. Zogby said in a pre-convention polling analysis. His latest poll showed “more voters trust McCain to deal effectively with economic issues” than Mr. Obama. “He clearly has work to do,” he said. Some Democratic party strategists think so, too.

“It’s not enough to be glib. It’s no longer about charisma and a new face,” said veteran party strategist Hank Sheinkopf. Mr. McCain has made the idea of celebrity a poor quality in a serious presidential candidate seeking to be the leader of the Free World. “What Americans want is some specificity about what Barack Obama is going to do about the economy and how to get people working again,” Mr. Sheinkopf told me.

Mr. Obama’s “to each according to his needs” attack on how many homes the McCains owned was crazy. First, let’s face it, they are owned by his wealthy wife Cindy, not by the Arizona senator making $144,000 a year, and their incomes and finances are separate by mutual agreement.

But it was the smallness and irrelevance of the issue that struck Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran of many campaigns. “They are making the wrong argument. Americans don’t care about how many houses you own. That’s idiotic. It doesn’t work,” he said. In the end, it showed how desperate the Obama campaign was in the face of his declining polls. He was losing some of his strongest supporters by nearly a dozen points - including Democrats, women, younger voters, and swing Catholics who had dropped by 11 points in the last month.

Offensive politics clearly works and the Republicans are good at it in the long summer run-up to the conventions and the general election. Critics call it “negative campaigning,” but the McCain TV ads and Internet ads, of which there were many, were all about Mr. Obama’s agenda and the doubts voters have about his tissue-paper-thin experience.

Tying Mr. Obama to real issues felt by real people: His opposition to offshore drilling for oil at a time when Americans were being crushed by high gas prices; his support for higher taxes on success and investment; his timid, unsure diplomatic response to the Russian invasion of Georgia, a small vulnerable country in Eastern Europe. These were legitimate issues that loom much larger than the number of homes someone owns.

Then there was the subtext to this convention that isn’t getting very much attention: the continuing leftward lurch of the Democrats, moving further and further away from the vital political center.

The left is here in full force, with yet another “take back America” war cry against what remains of centrist Democrats as well as against Mr. McCain and the Republicans. Only in this case, this is the very hard left who have become powerful new forces in the Democratic party.

There was Markos Moulitsas, the take-no-prisoners founder of the DailyKos Web site that is at the core of the party’s netroots armies who see themselves “crashing the gate” and taking over the party and government.

They call their headquarters the Big Tent, a stone’s throw from the convention hall. They gather daily to cheer Mr. Obama and his campaign to “Take Back America.” Liberal-leftist groups like Campaign for America’s Future, MoveOn.org, Progress Now and left-wing foot soldiers abound.

This is the changing of the guard. The Clinton/DLC centrist politics of free-trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), a strong defense posture, cutting capital-gains taxes to spur investment and jobs are being replaced by higher cap-gains taxes, higher taxes on “excess profits” and slamming the brakes on global trade.

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