Is Palin Falling Into the Obama Trap?

It wasn’t long ago that all sorts of voices on the right, not to mention from John McCain’s campaign itself, were shrieking about the media’s disproportionate coverage of the two major presidential candidates.

It was an utterly disingenuous ploy. Yes, the press was devoting vastly more ink and airtime to Barack Obama than John McCain, but they were merely feeding the public’s appetite: The guy with the fresh face attracts curiosity, which translates into big audiences and newsstand sales. Some of the coverage was fawning, but much of it was critical and not at all welcomed by the Obama campaign.

And the McCain campaign, for all its outward bluster, was actually quite happy to have such an intense spotlight on Obama, since it offered an opportunity to make the election a referendum on the “risky” Democratic nominee – and not on the last eight years of Republican rule. But the griping helped energize the press-leery conservative base, and that was good enough for McCain and his allies.

Of course, to the right, the volume of coverage stopped being an acceptable barometer of the press’ fairness on Friday, Aug. 29 – when McCain’s surprise selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate unleashed an Obama-like torrent of media interest in all things Palin-related. As with Obama, some of the coverage was overly friendly and some of it was harshly critical. And the overall volume of it was – and remains – completely and totally disproportionate to the level of coverage afforded to Palin’s Democratic counterpart, Joe Biden.

The same basic phenomenon has played out: A new force suddenly emerged on the national scene – a candidate with an unusual biography, obvious magnetism and the potential to make history – and has drowned out the other side. Of course, most voices on the right (at least publicly) don’t see it this way, preferring to spin the press’ interest in Palin into a victimization narrative, with the “liberal media” targeting yet another unsuspecting conservative for destruction.

This is ludicrous, but as with the shouting over the media’s high interest in Obama, it’s also been highly effective: The Republican base has embraced and rallied around Palin (and McCain, for that matter) with surprising zeal, and even less partisan voters have told pollsters that they believe Palin has been treated more harshly than the other candidates. Even if they won’t say so publicly, the McCain campaign is surely thrilled with all the attention paid to Palin – and the mastery with which they’ve been able to spin it.

But there is a potential downside to this for the G.O.P. As Democrats learned with Obama this summer, the more interest there is in one candidate, the more the election comes to serve as a referendum on that candidate. This accounts for some, but not all, of Obama’s underperformance in polls – both over the summer, when he led by much smaller margins than this year’s immense built-in Democratic advantages suggested he should have.

McCain’s recent movement can obviously be attributed to Palin��s sudden presence, and to the sharp, coherent and superficially compelling message he’s been pushing since the Republican convention. But he’s also capitalizing on an opening that’s existed since June, with Obama failing all summer to offer a similarly powerful and digestible argument for his candidacy that might convert swing voters who like him personally and distrust the Republican Party immensely into committed supporters.

Obama had all summer – from June 3, when he sewed up the Democratic nomination, to Aug. 29 – to make his case, and much of America, thanks to the media’s high interest, was watching closely (or more closely than they otherwise would in the warm-weather months). The McCain campaign was left to raise and amplify doubts. The record suggests, in fairly unmistakable terms, that Obama failed to meet the challenge.

But now it’s Palin’s turn. She has won the undying affection and loyalty of most of the right; this is indisputable. And, at least initially, she won – thanks to her brilliant performance at the Republican convention and to the McCain campaign’s initial success at portraying her as a victim – much sympathy and broad, soft support from swing voters. She has also earned the left’s enmity. So now the roles are reversed. It is the Republican candidate who is standing in an unusually bright spotlight with an opportunity to convert those soft supporters into true believers. And it is the left that is frantically trying to sow doubts that might arrest that process.

Charlie Gibson’s interview with Palin last week offered Democrats real hope that Palin might wilt under the pressure, although how many similar sessions she will sit for is an open question. (A second “major” interview, with CBS’s Katie Couric, was announced on Tuesday.) And the ongoing dissection of her Alaska record, and how at odds it is with the image of a principled reformer that she and McCain are selling to the electorate, could yet reach critical mass and turn swing voters against her.

And, of course, there’s the vice presidential debate on Oct. 2. Almost all of the pre-debate hype will be focused on Palin. To the extent that Biden factors into any of this talk, it will probably be in a negative way, with the press speculating about whether he will live up to his reputation and stick his foot in his mouth – maybe even with some kind of unintentionally sexist remark. If casual voters who last saw Palin wowing the G.O.P. convention tune in and see the same shaky performance that she turned in during the Gibson interview, they will be far more inclined to buy into all of the doubts Democrats are raising about her preparation. Meanwhile, a forceful, gaffe-free showing by Biden – something he pulled off in every Democratic debate last year – would come as a revelation to many of those same casual viewers. The contrast could be damaging to the G.O.P.

For now, Palin remains a clear asset for McCain and the G.O.P. And no matter what, she will walk away from this campaign with a legion of fans on the right that will make her a significant player in national politics for years to come. But she is now attracting more interest and attention than any vice presidential candidate before. If she doesn’t rise to the occasion, she and McCain will pay a price with the voters who will decide this election.

Is Palin Falling Into the Obama Trap?