With Obama Faltering, Do We Need Al Gore?

Many expected this year's Democratic Party convention, which opens Monday, to be an early victory lap for Barack Obama as he moved inexorably toward capturing the presidency. Instead, the Convention has become a badly-needed pit stop in a race that has swung sharply in John McCain's favor, while placing Obama and his campaign on the defensive.

A Reuters-Zogby poll released earlier this week tells in numbers what many sense intuitively: Obama's in trouble. A month ago, Obama led McCain 47% to 40% among likely US voters, and had a clear lead over his GOP rival on all issues except the war and terrorism. Now McCain leads Obama by almost the same margin, 46% to 41% -- and a majority of voters now trust McCain more than Obama to manage the economy as well as national security. That's an astounding turnaround.

Recent state-level polls confirm the growing damage to Obama's prospects. In August, McCain consolidating his polling lead throughout the South, including in traditional "Red"states like Georgia and North Carolina that Obama had hoped to make competitive. And McCain has all but eliminated Obama's wide lead in Blue states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and Minnesota, while surging ahead in key battleground states like Ohio and most recently, Indiana. And in the Southwest, where Obama had also expected to challenge GOP dominance, McCain now leads slightly in Colorado and Nevada. The one good piece of news? Obama is still holding his own not only in Florida but also in Virginia. Victories in both states could help Obama offset his prospective losses elsewhere. Otherwise, if current trends hold, the 2008 race may soon become a McCain runaway.

How could such a turnaround happen so quickly? Obama's campaign has been quick to embrace what could be called the "Sissy Defense": John McCain has gone negative, he promised not to, and that's really unfair! In fact, McCain's recent campaign ads, which depict Obama as a narcissistic celebrity more attuned to his image in Europe than in America, appear to have struck home with voters who genuinely fear that Obama's equivocation on oil drilling, and his vagueness on responding to Russia's invasion of Georgia, raise real concerns about whether he can handle the demands of the presidency.

And the Democratic response so far -- simply to urge Obama to become more "specific" in his policy proposals and more "aggressive" in attacking McCain -- rings hollow: in many cases, it's the substance, not the specificity of Democratic proposals that are hurting Obama. The public is in a fearful state over gas prices and McCain has very effectively linked this crisis to the broader issue of how to "secure" America's energy future. In other words, the economy itself has become a national security issue -- exactly the terms of debate that most favor McCain.

What's occurring, in fact, is exactly what one would expect from an inexperienced candidate like Obama who is trying -- largely unsuccessfully it appears -- to straddle two competing bases of support: the highly mobilized liberal constituencies that swept him to the nomination, and the broader voting groups he needs to win the general election. Environmentalists, for example, have long opposed offshore drilling, and still do. So Obama risks their wrath should he give in to the fears and demands of Soccer Moms whose entire suburban lifestyle depends on their ability to gas up their SUVs. But many Soccer Moms are also Democratic-leaning independent voters, and in 2004, many abandoned Kerry for Bush. So what's Obama to do?

It's the mark of a shrewd politician to find ways to balance long-standing political alliances with the sometimes overwhelming demands of political expediency. Unfortunately, this is an art form that Obama, like many Democrats before him, hasn't begun to master. As a highly trained intellectual, he can discuss the various sides of an issue, and speak compellingly about the need for compromise. But he evidently has little real world experience crafting difficult compromises that might alienate a few -- but satisfy the many.

The Convention, therefore, couldn't be more timely for Obama and for the Democrats. But what the Democrats most need now is not a new arena for self-congratulatory excess, but a new focal point for re-grounding Obama's candidacy. One of the first orders of business is the choice of a running mate, and rumors are circulating that Obama is preparing to chose Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, from a short list that has been reduced to Biden, Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine. The problem is, none of these three men is likely to bring to Obama what he needs most -- an infusion of depth, maturity, and gravitas, coupled with an ability to inspire the base.

Probably only two men are available to perform this role. Sam Nunn and Al Gore. Nunn, the former Democratic Sen. from Georgia, a moderate with impeccable bipartisan defense credentials, has the gravitas but not the command of the party base. Gore, who everyone knows actually won in 2000, has both. Would he upstage Obama? Hardly. He may be the only politician on earth who would view the VP slot as a step-down from his current role as a freelance oracle, statesman, and critic. But just as George Bush needed Dick Cheney in 2000 to elevate his stature and status, Obama badly needs Gore.

Nunn apparently turned down an offer to be considered for the VP slot, and it was once thought that Gore might be needed as the top candidate if the Obama-Clinton stalemate had continued. That threat has probably passed, but the new threat -- the opening up of a "leadership credibility gap" for the party's top candidate -- makes Gore the best choice for VP. His nomination could create new authority and legitimacy for Obama's candidacy, linking it to Gore's "stolen" victory in 2000, but still pointing the party and the country to a visionary future. Gore may also be the fiercest and most trenchant critic of the Bush years that the Democrats have. His nomination could be just the political thunderbolt that Obama and the party need.

AlterNet is a non profit organization and does not make political endorsements. The opinions expressed by our writers are their own.

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