Will Obama Rise to Challenge of Tough Campaign?

The only thing that could have been worse for Barack Obama than spending Tuesday night with a crowd in Beverly Hills that was paying $28,500 apiece for a 5 p.m. dinner with him would have been the Wall Street version of the same event.

Here, the financial world is falling apart. The government is coming in to save and run financial giants. It feels like the billionaires are getting bailed out, while the rest of us are hanging out to dry. And Barack Obama is in Beverly Hills!

Of course, both Obama and McCain go to Beverly Hills to raise money. Both go to Wall Street to raise money. You rob banks because that’s where the money is. You go to Los Angeles and New York not to campaign – states that are colored in advance don’t get rallies or ads or shop floor appearances – not to campaign but to raise money from people who have it.

The sucking sound we hear out here is the vacuum cleaner coming in to raise money here to spend in places like Ohio and Michigan.

Public-funding idealists, myself included, once thought that giving each candidate $84 million might free them from the need to spend hours having their pictures taken with rich people (which is what Obama did for the first half of his "dinner" in Beverly Hills), but we have learned better.

Obama chose not to take public funding (a decision that may or may not look smart in retrospect) so as to be able to control directly more of the spending on his behalf. Whether that control is worth $84 million depends on how many events he has to do like last night’s, and whether John McCain, who has taken public funds but will also benefit from uncoordinated expenditures by the Republican National Committee and various state parties, ends up with more money to spend overall than Obama has.

I’m told that virtually everyone in line to have their picture taken with Obama on Tuesday night had advice to give him about how to win this race. When you’re winning, you’re a genius. When a race that many people, including some in Obama’s inner circle, thought they couldn’t lose looks, at best, like a tie, everybody has advice.

I’m also told that Sen. Obama himself projected great confidence that he will win this race. Is he really so confident? Who knows. Candidates tend to live in bubbles.

I remember, after a meeting between then-candidate Dukakis and various party and congressional leaders prior to the disastrous second debate, Gov. Dukakis projected so much confidence that more than one of the people in attendance took me aside afterwards to find out if he was following the polls. Of course, no one said that to him.

The fact that this should be a Democratic year – because the economy stinks, and billionaires are getting bailed out, and the people who hold the mortgage packages seem to be getting more help than the people who owned the homes and are losing them, and gas prices are high, and the president’s approval is still in the toilet – does not mean that it will be.

It does not mean that Barack Obama has a rightful claim on the White House that, if it is denied to him, will only be because of his race. This idea that race is the only thing that could cost Barack Obama the presidency is both dangerous and wrong.

The polls may be wrong because of race: that is, McCain may actually be further ahead than he looks to be right now, because some voters are giving the politically correct rather than the honest answer. But it is not the reason that Barack Obama has not locked this one up, and those who suggest otherwise are fueling a backlash that could be vicious and ugly. And unjustified.

Barack Obama didn’t win the Democratic nomination in a landslide. He won it by a nose. He won it by losing almost all of the states a Democrat has to win to be elected president, and winning in all of the states – many of them caucuses – which are already colored red on everyone’s map.

That isn’t to take away from the smarts of his campaign, or the appeal of his candidacy, but unless you’re willing to condemn all of Hillary’s supporters as racists, it suggests that he faced some difficulties going in to the states he needs to win.

Bill and Hillary Clinton came through for Obama — with two of the best convention speeches you could imagine, but the fact is that the Democratic convention was largely dominated by the Clinton-vs.-Obama story.

Democrats didn’t do this time what they also failed to do last time: use the convention as a showcase to make the case against their opponent. Whether or not that will be understood, in retrospect, as a key missed opportunity remains to be seen.

Obama’s campaign also made the decision that their "other" big event for the summer, other than the convention, that is, would be a trip abroad, a demonstration of Obama as world leader. It was certainly a reasonable strategy – aimed at solidifying Obama’s claim to have the stature and gravitas to be commander-in-chief.

But it is entirely possible, given the fact that the Berlin bump lasted about thirty seconds and that the issue on everyone’s mind right now is the economy, that the time would have been better spent right here at home, doing something trite and silly and old-fashioned like working a different job every day, or traveling through the Midwest with Bill and Hill and a revolving busload of real people.

McCain was always the Republican every Democrat I knew feared most, precisely because he has long been the one we liked most. He is not, as one of my liberal media friends said derisively, a doddering old man. He is a very smart guy with an amazing story to tell whose service and sacrifice for this country, and his willingness to stand up to his party on important issues, deserve respect, and he gets it from everyone but the hard left.

To be sure, at the beginning of the summer, McCain’s campaign was pretty unfocused and disorganized. It isn’t, anymore.

Expecting Republicans to run lousy campaigns is a recipe for losing. They are good at campaigns. Attacking them for their negativity is no way to beat them. Attacking John McCain for not using a computer is beyond dumb. (I actually had a debate with one Obama supporter about whether McCain should have been able to adjust the position of the keyboard so as to type notwithstanding his war injuries. It finally ended when I practically screamed that any debate that turned on just how severe McCain’s injuries were during his POW days was a debate he won. Oy.)

Finally, as for the vice presidency, Obama made a safe choice that brought him basically nothing, politically speaking (sorry Joe, nothing personal), and gave some Hillary supporters one more reason to be angry. McCain made a high-risk choice that, at least at this juncture, many Democrats misread and completely mishandled, and many Republicans and many women have applauded.

Time will tell, but I’m betting that the harder liberals try to sink Palin, the more likely McCain is to win.

It may well be that in the history of this campaign, Lehman Brothers and AIG will be seen as a turning point. Obama is, finally, back on message, on the economy, dismissing the lipstick and the pigs and the rest, and focusing on what matters to voters. If he wins, it will be because the economy gets him there.

If he loses, it will be because McCain has more experience, and made better choices.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.