It's close and getting closer

Don't believe what you hear: this is the most unpredictable presidential race in history, and right

I do wish Barack Obama would stop following me around. I fly into London, and next day he follows me there. A few days later, I find myself in Hawaii. And who should fly in there the following day? You've guessed it: the 47-year-old, not-yet-one-term senator due to be crowned as the official Democratic presidential candidate of 2008 at the party convention, which begins in Denver on Monday 25 August. His stalking did not stop there, either: my next port of call was Los Angeles, and Obama followed immediately.

This time, though, he at least had the excuse that he had come to California to appear on stage for the first time in the campaign with his Republican opponent, 71-year-old Senator John McCain. They were in each other's company for all of 36 seconds, however, with both men being questioned separately for an hour live on coast-to-coast television by none other than Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church (I told you this was the strangest and most unpredictable presidential election in history). We will come to the Saddleback forum and all its implications in a moment, however.

First, though, my travels - which I mention just to illustrate how perceptions of the '08 presidential election differ wildly depending on where you are. In London, I found an almost universal, blithe assumption that Obama will be the next US president. But in Obama's native Hawaii, where he was born two years after the islands became a US state, only 4,000 bothered to turn up to a welcoming rally for him, and I did not see a single Obama sticker or poster; nor, to be fair, did I catch sight of any for McCain, either. In the prime Democratic territory of Los Angeles, Obamamania had subsided markedly - supporting the findings of a Pew Research Centre poll, which found that 48 per cent of Americans now believe that they have heard too much about Obama.

Even back in DC, there seemed less excitement than previously. Yet although (as I write) the vice-presidential running mates have yet to be announced or the party conventions held, history shows that August often turns out to be the crucial month in presidential campaigns. Polls show that 80 per cent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction, a two-term Republican president is breaking records for unpopularity, and the economy is in dire straits. War in Iraq rages on. And it is so rare for one party to win three presidential elections in a row that Obama and the Democrats should be romping their way to victory already.

So what on earth is happening? Nationwide polls remain stupefyingly static, with Obama maintaining small but statistically insignificant leads; from 14-16 August, Gallup had both candidates in a dead heat. But such polls can be misleading. It is the magic figure of 270 electoral college votes the winner needs that matter, and, on 18 August, an amalgamation of polls in the six major battleground states - Colorado, Virginia, Missouri, Michigan, Ohio and Florida - showed that McCain was ahead for the first time in five of them, again by tiny leads well within the margins of error. Obama achieved little or no bounce from his prematurely triumphalist overseas trip, although he can expect his ratings to rise in the coming days of the Democratic convention; but then McCain's turn will follow at the Republican convention immediately afterwards.

I believe this election is so volatile that either man could yet win by a landslide, although a third agonisingly close presidential showdown is more likely. Should the gaffe-prone McCain stumble, he could forever become fatally imprinted as too old in the minds of the electorate; astonishingly, Obama has never faced a serious Republican opponent before, and his inexperience and political glass jaw could become equally fatal flaws. If I had a gun put to my head, though - and please do not treat this as a firm prediction - I would say that the zeitgeist I have found in my travels across the country is currently with McCain. Yes, President John McCain. The crucial face-to-face presidential debates will not come until 26 September and 7 and 15 October- but the recent prequel with Pastor Rick showed McCain will be a much more formidable opponent than Democrats had anticipated.

Even the highly pro-Obama New York Times reported on its front page, on 16 August, that the race now "looks tougher" than "party leaders [had] imagined, with Mr Obama vulnerable on multiple fronts". The Obama camp tacitly conceded defeat after Saddleback, in fact, putting it out that McCain had heard the first session with Obama when he was supposed to be cloistered - Obama went first by the toss of a coin - and was prepared for the questions. The McCain camp was enraged, saying that their man was actually in a secret service motorcade and then in a quarantined green room while Obama was on stage.

To reporters familiar with McCain's stump speeches, in any case, his performance came as all-too predictable. He showed in his answers what an America under the oldest president in US history would be like: perhaps even more right wing than under George W Bush, unashamedly populist, with a far-right Supreme Court deliberating on issues such as abortion, capital punishment and gay marriage (assuming two or three vacancies arise in the next presidential term, as expected) for decades to come - with many Reaganesque anecdotes thrown in for cosy reassurance.

What we saw in Obama and McCain, in brief, was the cerebral versus the visceral. McCain, as a seasoned politician, knew instinctively which questions presented him with the opportunity to make political points and launch into anecdotes favourable to him - and when to be short and sharp. Obama did not, and instead did something politicians rarely do: he tried, to his cost, to answer questions straightforwardly.

But that went down with a resounding thud. Asked, for example, at what point a baby is entitled to human rights, Obama launched into a confusing ramble: "Well, I think that whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me speak more generally about the issue . . ." Exactly an hour later, asked a similar question, McCain knew what the evangelical and Catholic constituencies both men are courting wanted to hear. "At the moment of conception," he pronounced decisively.

Anti-intellectual

This, I think, rather than the race aspect people in London kept going on about - we should remember, after all, that Obama is every bit as white as he is black and that his biracialism is both electorally advantageous and disadvantageous - is how America is beginning to differentiate between the two candidates. America, as de Tocqueville so perceptively pointed out, is profoundly anti-intellectual - and Obama is already beginning to discover that his Ivy League education is a hindrance rather than a boon.

It was McCain who won the who-would-you-rather-have-a-beer-with test in Saddleback; Obama came across as someone more likely to send the Chablis back to have it cooled by a couple of degrees. Straight talk, whether it is right or wrong, or "know-nothingness" in the words of Paul Krugman, is what Americans want to hear; answers and solutions have to be in simple black and white and not nuanced.

Americans, in fact, simply don't do nuance. If they think drilling for oil here, there, and everywhere will suddenly lower their petrol prices - complete nonsense, but a sudden policy turnaround the hitherto environmentally conscious McCain has found works to his advantage - then the candidate advocating that will get their vote, rather than the one who says things are more complicated than that. Rather pathetically, Obama - whose dramatic tack to the right disillusioned many Democrats after he landed the nomination - is beginning to think more drilling for oil might be a good idea after all, too.

This kind of frantic and competitive populism, in a country where "elite" is a dirty word, is the big danger now facing Obama. The Princeton-educated Adlai Stevenson was demonstrably more politically qualified for the presidency in 1952 and 1956 than General Dwight Eisenhower, but each time the "egghead" label that the media had bestowed on him proved fatal.

In contrast, and notwithstanding his highly successful wartime career, Eisenhower was educated only at the US Military Academy; McCain, in a remarkable parallel, only at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. He was known there as John "Wayne" McCain and soon gained a reputation as a carouser and womaniser, finally graduating fourth from the bottom in his year's intake. For many Americans, knowing all this - and of his later heroism as a prisoner of war - makes him a man rather than a rocket-munching wimp like Obama, and thus one ideally suited to occupy the White House.

The predictable swiftboating books on Obama have already started to come out, and one by Jerome Corsi - co-author of the wicked diatribe that killed John Kerry's presidential hopes - is already a bestseller. The tactic Obama used so effectively against Hillary Clinton - pre-emptively predicting racist attacks from his opponent, thus rendering himself practically immune from legitimate political attacks - is unlikely to work so well with McCain. Republicans are better campaigners as well, and in his most celebrated ad so far the McCain campaign hit Obama where it hurt most, turning his celebrityhood against him by mixing footage of Obamaesque adulation in Germany and elsewhere with fleeting images of fellow celebrities such as Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. The Obama campaign has already gone negative in battleground states, too, constantly hammering out the message that McCain is just a carbon copy of George W Bush.

So we have now reached a fascinating crossroads. Obama's campaign raised more than $51m just last month, in contrast to McCain's $28m. But because he reneged on his commitment to abide by public finance rules and McCain did not, McCain now has a windfall of $84m in public funds that he must spend before the end of the conventions on 4 September. He is thus currently outspending Obama and bombarding the airwaves in 11 battleground states with slick, clever ads that make him look presidential.

The strategy of McCain and the Republicans, therefore, is to make Obama's decision to forego public spending backfire on him - by building an unstoppable impetus for McCain before 4 September. But from then until voters go to the polls, it is Obama who will have the financial advantage. In the meantime, don't believe all you hear, whether it is in London or Hawaii: it certainly ain't all over yet.