The polls show a tightening race, reflecting how perniciously effective smear politics can still be. McCain campaign mud, at least for the time being, is filling in the blanks of an opponent largely unknown to some clueless segment of the electorate.
The dilemma for Obama is how to respond. Trying to stay about it all, as John Kerry did in 2004, is a losing strategy, but full-throttle counterattacks raise the risk of making Obama seem thin-skinned and easily rattled.
Ridicule is iffy. Yesterday the Democratic candidate got some mileage from tweaking McCain about his flipflop on tire inflation for better gas mileage, but too much of that could make him look unpleasantly sarcastic.
For the long haul, Barack Obama has to concentrate on defining himself and his politics for an electorate that wants change but at the same time is wary of risk. He should establish himself as strong enough to withstand smears and then let his surrogates and his eventual running mate deal with the most of the tactical back-and-forth.
Obama has to remember that, as much as he has excited millions of voters, there may be even more who know little about him and can be manipulated into seeing him as a dangerous choice. He has to make them see who he is and what he stands for.
Meanwhile, the doubt-raisers are getting more subtle. Yesterday, one of McCain's potential running mates, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, praised the Democrat ("Say what you will about Barack Obama," he told conservatives, "people gravitate when you have something positive to say"), but then attacked him for inexperience (“It is simply a matter of fact that less than four years ago he was a state legislator”).
Obama should leave it to others to point out that Pawlenty, who could be second in line to an aging president, was only a state legislator five years ago and concentrate on the "something positive" his presidency would offer Americans after eight years of Bush-Cheney negativity.