Something most unlikely is happening in the presidential election. All the odds are stacked against John McCain. By his own admission he is "as old as dirt" and has "as many scars as Frankenstein." He is not a great stump speaker, finds it awkward reading a speech from a teleprompter, and, though charming in person, he does not have great screen presence.
His campaign is in shambles. Even before his economic adviser Phil Gramm started wagging his finger at Americans feeling the pinch at the gas pumps, the Arizona senator was finding it hard to get his ducks in a row. If he cannot even sort out his campaign organization, what is the chance he will make an effective president?
Mr. McCain was all set to recruit the veteran Republican strategist Mike Murphy, who ran his 2000 campaign, before other members of his staff vetoed the appointment. Being pushed about by your own subordinates is a bad omen for someone bidding to be the nation's chief executive.
Mr. McCain also is finding it difficult to focus on a clear message. What would America be like under his stewardship? No one has any idea. Part of his campaign's failure is the lack of a simple phrase that would show where he might be leading us.
And yet, for all these shortcomings, the latest daily tracking opinion polls from Rasmussen put Mr. McCain neck and neck with the charismatic, articulate, focused, artful, handsome, telegenic, young Barack Obama. The latest polling in the pivotal state of Florida gives Mr. McCain a clear lead.
This is not what is meant to be happening. According to bien pensant wisdom, 2008 is a Democratic year and everything suggests an Obama victory. Change is in the air, the Republicans are pariahs, the president is as popular as a raccoon in the rafters, and all Mr. Obama has to do to win is smile and keep his own counsel.
So how to explain why Mr. McCain is riding high? If, as Mr. Obama likes to suggest, the Arizona senator will merely continue the policies of President Bush, he should not stand a prayer in November. Yet there he is, laughing and joking as he draws alongside his thrusting young rival.
As there is little we do not already know about Mr. McCain, the problem appears to lie with Mr. Obama. His shifting stance on key issues certainly has driven many of his most devoted followers to apoplexy. While even his own Web site has fallen to rebels who think his turn on domestic wiretapping is a betrayal of everything they stand for, his other "revisions" also have sent up the warning flares.
Most troublesome for liberals is his change of mind over abortion, capital punishment, and guns. He no longer thinks pregnant women who risk their mental health if they give birth should be allowed to abort. He now believes that rapists, not just child murderers, should be put to death by the state. And he welcomed the recent ruling declaring Washington's gun laws unconstitutional as a useful clarification. Would President Obama appoint a Supreme Court justice bent on overturning Roe v. Wade? It is not at all clear.
Then there are Mr. Obama's errors of judgment. His reluctance to push his daughters into the limelight was admirable. You cannot be a good politician if you are not a good parent. But then he and his wife Michelle had Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, parade their girlish charms on "Access Hollywood" as if they were contestants in a sickening junior beauty queen pageant. Then the following morning Mr. Obama was full of remorse for exploiting his children in such a crass manner.
He made a similar backward flip over his opposition to the Iraq war, a stance which, Mrs. Clinton remembers better than most, formed the central plank of his primary campaign. In those distant days he said Iraq was most certainly not a front against Al Qaeda, he promised to bring the troops home without delay, and he said a permanent American military presence in Iraq was out of the question.
Then he backtracked. The troops would come home only when it was safe to do so and some American troops would have to remain in Iraq for a long time to rid the country of Al Qaeda.
What voters appear to be concerned about is not so much Mr. Obama's need to run to the center. By deserting his activists he is, after all, pleasing the majority in the all-important center ground. What they are becoming wary of is what his zig-zagging tells us about his character. And the more we discover about Mr. Obama, the more we find to dislike. All politicians are vain, but in Mr. Obama there is the same self preening swagger that is evident in President Bush.
The grumpy, unreconstructed Mr. McCain, meanwhile, is an authentic eccentric, a courageous politician who has, over immigration and the Iraq War, defied his own party and his president. His independence has not made him many friends among conservatives and evangelicals, but he is so cussed, he does as he pleases and hang the consequences.
Mr. McCain is not much good at policy for its own sake and doesn't take himself too seriously. He is without pomp and likes to crack a joke to make a point, even when the joke is a little off color. His evident strength of character is in stark contrast to Mr. Obama's lust to please, which is why, against the odds, the Arizona senator is proving a most formidable rival.