As little as a week ago, Alaska governor Sarah Palin seemed on track to be an election-altering force, the VP pick who changed it all. But things move fast in this new politico-media world, and the Palin swoon now seems like ancient history.

The media and public fascination with Palin was mainly a product of Palin's freshness on the political stage, her low-expectations-surpassing performance at the Republican National Convention, the way she temporarily reignited the gender wars and fired up the evangelical base, and the clear bump that John McCain enjoyed, post-Palin, in the polls.

In retrospect, though, Palin mania now looks less like a sign of how perfectly cast she was and more like a reminder of how greatly McCain benefits when the national conversation is not about him. A few big investigative stories later (detailing Palin's lies, her vindictiveness, her censorious impulses toward her town's library, and even her purchase of a tanning bed) and the distraction she provides isn't quite so helpful to McCain. And, in the all-important poll watch, Palin's favorability ratings are dropping fast—down 12 points, for example, in a recent Hotline poll.

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On top of this, with the economy in crisis and McCain's own economic adviser, former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, admitting on September 16 that Palin doesn't have the experience to run a major corporation, the national focus has naturally swung back to McCain and whether he's the right man to run the country at a time when the financial news sounds like a flashback to the eve of the Great Depression.

This is, theoretically, favorable ground for Obama. Helpfully, the McCain campaign kicked off a week of "financial crisis" news with several unintentional gifts to his opponent.

First, at the very moment that most Americans were tuning in to the crisis, McCain said, at an event in Florida, that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." (By the next morning, the Obama campaign was using video of the remark in an attack commercial that asked, "How can John McCain fix our economy if he doesn't understand it's broken?") Then, by way of explaining how McCain was qualified to understand modern financial markets and the mess they're in, a McCain spokesman claimed that McCain had "helped create" the "miracle" of the BlackBerry. McCain has admitted he does not use e-mail and isn't very computer savvy.

Next, Fiorina, the McCain economic adviser who'd said Palin couldn't run Hewlett-Packard, tried for a quick save by contending that none of the candidates—McCain included—was qualified to run a big company. The Obama campaign's lightning-fast response: "If John McCain's top economic adviser doesn't think he can run a corporation, how on earth can he run the largest economy in the world in the midst of a financial crisis?"

With Palin firmly in the past and the financial crisis at the fore of everyone's attention, Obama is obviously relishing a new political terrain that may force voters to cast aside gender politics, identity politics, and religion, and answer the question: Who do you really want in charge of America's balance sheets?

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We'll know soon, via this election season's relentless polling, whether this new environment and Obama's new strategy of attacking McCain on economic issues at every opportunity becomes a success. On its face, it seems like a winning tactic.

But here's an ominous sign: A recent poll in the important swing state of Ohio, conducted September 10 to 13, found that McCain is leading Obama 46–42. Even worse: According to the Ohio poll, voters simultaneously believe, by an 11-point margin, that Obama has the better plan to bring jobs to the state, and that McCain, by an 8-point margin, is more trustworthy.

If what this really means is that a lot of voters, faced with economic uncertainty and the fear it produces, just want an old white guy to tuck them into bed at night and don't want to roll the dice on an African American whom they find "untrustworthy" (even if he has a better economic plan), then Obama is in big trouble.

While everyone waits to see how the post-Palin battle over the economy sorts out, mark your calendars: Another defining moment in the dash toward November 4 will be the debates, which kick off on Friday, September 26, in Oxford, Missouri. recommended