McCain is the man to beat

Joel Pollak on the U.S. presidential election

I've lived through several American presidential elections, but never one like this. You can't avoid it; it's all anyone seems to be talking about. On the streets, in the subway stations, in the office-it's everywhere. Last week I had lunch at a cafeteria where a group of construction workers were taking their midday meal. They passed around front-page clippings and debated whether Barack Obama is really a Muslim.

Religion, race and gender have come up in this campaign, but not as often as many people seem to have expected. There are more complaints about alleged bigotry than actual instances of it. Obama's camp recently accused Hillary Clinton's campaign of deliberately darkening his image in a video on her website. Clinton supporters accused Obama of sexism when he said she became angry "periodically."

Aside from such frivolity, the contest has largely been about the issues. And the differences are starker than ever before. Obama and Clinton, who are running neck-and-neck for the Democratic Party nomination, promise to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. John McCain, who recently sealed his victory in the Republican race, believes American forces should remain in Iraq until it is safe and stable.

McCain and Clinton have both said they will not meet with America's enemies that fail to meet basic conditions-complying with United Nations Security Council resolutions and such. In contrast, Obama has promised to hold unconditional talks with his counterparts in Iran, Cuba and elsewhere, arguing that "aggressive diplomacy" will yield better results than the threat of military force.

Obama and Clinton both want to raise taxes to pay for a national system of health insurance. The main difference between them is that Clinton wants every American to pay, whereas Obama wants to give adults the choice to opt out. McCain opposes a national heath system, and argues that the real problem is the cost of care. His ideas for saving money include protecting doctors from frivolous malpractice suits, and encouraging Americans to live healthier lifestyles.

Perhaps the most striking difference is on free trade. Clinton and Obama have both come out strongly against it, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has been good for the American economy overall but has hurt some sectors. McCain, on the other hand, strongly supports free trade and opposes subsidies for uncompetitive industries, even though that has cost him voter support.

Each candidate also presents a different style of politics. McCain is known for his "straight talk" approach, a brand of political courage that he has deployed against powerful interests-and, on occasion, his own party. Clinton casts herself as a "doer" who has the policy expertise and political experience to achieve results. Obama offers charismatic leadership that transcends old divisions and orthodoxies.

Obama is also the best speaker, by far-possibly the most talented orator of his generation, though his speeches have a gloomy edge and rely too heavily on empty sloganeering. Clinton is the most skillful debater, with a knack for explaining complex points and parrying her opponents' attacks. McCain delivers devastating one-line barbs in debates, but employs an optimistic, hopeful tone in his speeches.

Each candidate also has clear weaknesses. Hillary is a polarizing figure to many Americans, and is seen as part of the tiresome Washington establishment. Obama's critics believe he lacks experience and gravitas; he is also the most left-wing of the candidates. McCain is seen as old-he would be the oldest person ever to serve as President-and he is resented by his party's conservative base.

Yet each has also overcome significant obstacles. Hillary has stepped out of her husband's shadow to make her mark as a successful Senator. Obama surpassed all expectations to become the Democratic front-runner, bringing millions of new voters and activists into his party. McCain's campaign was near collapse less than a year ago, but he has staged the most remarkable comeback in recent electoral history.

The rest of the world clearly prefers Obama. America's allies-as well as its enemies-believe that Obama offers a less confrontational approach. As the first serious black contender for the presidency, he also symbolizes what foreigners admire about the U.S.-namely, its ability to constantly renew itself. His protectionist policies, however, have already alarmed Canada, America's largest trade partner.

Clinton has also proved a tenacious opponent. Though Obama holds a slight lead among Democratic Party voters, he has yet to win a big state other than his home state of Illinois. He has also failed to secure the support of a majority of the delegates to the party's convention in August, leaving the final decision in the hands of "superdelegates"-the nomenklatura of the Democratic political machine.

Ironically, it is the Republicans-often caricatured as the party of the elite-who have the more transparent primary system. McCain's opponents have graciously bowed out in turn, offering their support to him. The fact that the Democrats are still fighting each other gives McCain time to rest and raise money while his opponents spend millions on negative advertising that does his dirty work for him.

Though many expected 2008 to be the Democrats' year, the Democratic-controlled Congress has even lower approval ratings than President George W. Bush. The "New Democrat" spirit that animated Bill Clinton's presidency has been ditched for old-school left-wing politics and the new radicalism inspired by Michael Moore and Cornel West. The party has a desperate, millenarian air to it-not a promising sign.

There is too much bad blood between Clinton and Obama to allow for a compromise to emerge. And the longer they fight, the better McCain's chances grow. McCain, a Vietnam War hero, projects strength and confidence. He is not an economic heavyweight, but neither are his opponents. This will remain a close race, sensitive to events in Iraq and on Wall Street. But for now, McCain is the man to beat.