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White House race heads into the unknown

  • Story Highlights
  • Campaigning may center on Obama's experience, McCain as Republican successor
  • Some Democrats fear that Obama has not been tough enough with his rival
  • Analysts believe that after a bad start, McCain has got sharper and more aggressive
  • McCain may be helped by voters seeing him less as a Republican, more as a maverick
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By CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley
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By the time you read this, Barack Obama will probably have announced his running mate and John McCain will be about a week from naming his.

Republican John McCain, above, has started to gain ground on his Democrat rival Barack Obama.

Republican John McCain, above, has started to gain ground on his Democrat rival Barack Obama.

Then we enter the portal of the unknown into the fall campaign.

The one thing we do know is what will be the major themes of the candidates. Regardless of the topic -- the economy, fuel prices, foreign policy -- the arguments boil down to bumper sticker language.

"McCain is Bush."

"Obama's Not Ready."

The fall campaign will play out variations of those two themes, and it begins in a place we did not expect.

In a year when absolutely every leading political indicator favors Democrats, the presidential race is dead even. Barack Obama's summer lead is gone. The question is whether he has done something wrong or McCain has done something right.

Obama's Democratic critics (dismissed by the Obama crowd as "beltway boo hoo-ers") are, as one described it to me "a bit" concerned. They think he has not been tough enough on McCain, nor detailed enough with voters, particularly the economically distressed working class, the "Hillary voters".

In short, they worry he's being perceived as all speech and no specifics.

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One Democratic governor complained on the front page of "The New York Times" that Obama needed to tell working-class voters what he will do for them in "10 words."

Democratic insiders also concede McCain has done some damage with his famous "Paris Hilton ad," depicting Obama as an empty celebrity with little experience to be president.

McCain took the chance to underscore his strengths when Russian troops moved into Georgia, offering daily statements on the situation while Obama vacationed. (Obama did appear before cameras for one statement while he was in Hawaii.)

McCain, after an early start even some of his staffers agree was rambling and stumbling, has gotten sharper and more aggressive on the stump. His campaign has unleashed a string of attack ads and, most recently, was widely seen to have exceeded expectations at a faith and values forum. Obama was criticized as "too circular" while McCain was praised for his directness.

Still, given the unpopularity of the Republicans and the historic low ratings of George W. Bush, McCain's gravity-defying poll numbers are about more than a few tough ads and one badly timed vacation. When voters see McCain, they do not see a Republican so much as a maverick; not a party man so much as a pragmatic one.

And it has worked for him. So far.

But if there is one thing we know as we approach the portal of the unknown: very little in this campaign has played out the way we expected it would.

It's what makes it such a great year.

All About Democratic PartyBarack ObamaJohn McCainRepublican Party

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