Barack Obama is set to be the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. His main task is already pivoted on preparing for the general election by unifying the party and healing the divisions of class, gender and race. Fervent Republicans hope that in an unlosable election, the Democrats may have chosen an unelectable candidate. They should be so lucky.

Mr. Obama is battered and bloodied, but also battle hardened mythic slayer of the famed and feared two-headed Clinton dragon. Moreover, the toughness of his fight with Hillary Clinton makes it less easy for the Republicans to define Mr. Obama on their terms; he is no longer just an empty suit giving great speeches. The contest could pit a genuine American hero against the man of destiny. While honouring John McCain as a true patriot, Mr. Obama has begun to sketch out his and his wife's compelling life narratives as a metaphor for the American dream.

As the first black president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review, the remunerative world of successful law graduates beckoned. Mr. Obama could have been a Supreme Court clerk or gone straight into a top-end law firm, but he chose instead to become a community organiser in Chicago, working across racial and other divides but also nursing a political ambition that aimed not for bit parts but for the stars. His message of unity resonates because he personifies America's contradictions but also its aspirations and ambitions as the city on the hill. He is the embodiment of the Republican's great propaganda: that in America anyone with the talent, aptitude and work ethic can realise the American dream. For them to attack Mr. Obama would be to say the core Republican belief has been a lie.

Additional problems

Some Democrats still hanker for the dream ticket. Choosing Ms Clinton would create additional problems without appreciably solving any of Mr. Obama's existing woes. She would compete with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright as the mascot for getting out the Republican vote, contradict his main theme of changing Washington politics, and be an alternative, distracting centre of media attention. There are others who could shore up the party's base among Southern whites or white women while also appealing to independents or soft Republicans: Ted Strickland, Kathleen Sebelius, Janet Napolitano, Chuck Hagel, Jim Webb, Bill Richardson, Michael Bloomberg, Sam Nunn (John Edwards has ruled himself out).

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama will claim the high road without leaving the low road. While the candidates directly will try to debate the issues, their surrogates may well dig deep into closets for skeletons. Ms Clinton did Mr. Obama a big favour by ensuring that his weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities got a full airing during the primaries. None proved fatal; resurrecting them will likely produce yawns. Republicans might try to paint him as an antiwar liberal like George McGovern with a narrow base, sprinkled with the Michael Dukakis weakness of being disconnected from working-class white voters. The strategy didn't work for Ms Clinton: she forgot the country has moved since Bill first ran 16 years ago. Race-based identity politics shows a generational divide. Mr. McCain is vulnerable to the counter-charge of not being aware of how much the nation and the world have changed since he first entered politics.

The smear-and-fear tactics will likely revolve around depicting Mr. Obama as a cultural and intellectual elitist aloof from six-pack Joe and Jane, with Muslim family connections and America-hating associates. Mr. Obama parried this during the primary by expressing revulsion at the peddlers of hate and the merchants of slime, appealing instead to the better instincts of Americans. His message could resonate even more powerfully during the general election campaign as backlash against the Bush-Cheney years of terrify-and-rule. Should McCain surrogates resort to the fear-and-smear tactics, Mr. Obama can charge Mr. McCain with being either a hypocrite in claiming to run a civil and respectful campaign, or else ineffectual in controlling his campaign and therefore unfit to be president.

Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. McCain's skeletons, including support and endorsements from fiery white priests and pastors (cue Rev. John Hagee and his description of the Catholic Church as "the Great Whore," the video of which is available on YouTube), have not been subjected to the same fierce public and media scrutiny. But there has already been one interesting development. Once he became the presumptive nominee, Mr. McCain, champion of anti-lobbyists, appointed Doug Goodyear to manage the party's convention. Mr. Goodyear is CEO of DCI Group, a consulting firm that earned $3 million last year to lobby for ExxonMobil and General Motors, among others; has been a leader in running so-called "527" attack ads that have been the target of Mr. McCain's campaign finance reform; and was paid almost $350,000 in 2002 by Myanmar's nasty military rulers to brush up their image in Washington. No sooner was this story published in Newsweek on 10 May than Mr. Goodyear decided to step aside from the post. Over the next week another four left Mr. McCain's camp owing to previous lobbying activities or connections.

The Democrats have learnt from the John Kerry experience that not responding swiftly to Swiftboating attacks can cause irreversible political damage.

But to fight the election on this terrain is to risk being identified with the Bush legacy. Mr. McCain's supposed big advantage is foreign policy and national security experience. Mr. McCain is weighed down by the millstones of an unpopular president, an unpopular war and a tanking economy. The answer to the litmus test for incumbent administrations made famous by Ronald Reagan - are you better off today - is a resounding "Hell, no." Not just the disaster, but its magnitude, is impossible to conceal. Big budget surpluses have turned into big debt; the nation at peace is fighting two nightmarish wars and could be plunged into a third; denial of climate change has put the planet in peril; stable energy prices have given way to skyrocketing prices at the gas pump; real household incomes have shrunk even during an economic expansion; and an America at the pinnacle of global power and respect is held in nearly universal contempt and disrespect. Little wonder that pessimism prevails and people yearn for change.

The Bush baggage

President George W. Bush's disapproval rating has risen to 69 per cent: the highest since Gallup began polling 70 years ago, higher even than Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter during Vietnam, Watergate and the Iran hostage crisis respectively. Over 80 per cent of Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction: hence the appeal of a change candidate. Iraq, to which Mr. McCain is cleaved like a conjoined twin, is viewed as a mistake by 63 per cent. In current nationals poll, Mr. McCain trails Mr. Obama by significant margins. The initial party sympathy has blown out from a 47-44 margin in favour of Democrats in 2004 (the last presidential election) to 51-38 today. A trio of recent Congressional losses in long-held "safe" seats has set off alarm bells among Republicans about their prospects in November. Overall, Democrats have a 21-point advantage over the Republicans as the party best equipped to handle the nation's serious problems.

Team Obama has proven to be an impressive mix of strategists and managers, idealists and street-smarts. Equally astonishing has been their model of Internet-based fundraising, grassroots organisation, long-range planning and political mobilisation that skilfully exploits Mr. Obama's rock star appeal.

Stars seem aligned

Mr. Obama has to avoid alienating his existing broad base, Mr. McCain has to work aggressively to expand a narrow support base. Mr. McCain is on the losing side on three big issues: the economy, health care and Iraq. Mr. McCain's maverick reputation will not be enough to insulate him against being the candidate of Washington. One of the smartest moves the Obama team made early on was to locate campaign headquarters outside Washington, in Chicago. But Mr. McCain could win the argument on free trade and paint Mr. Obama as an anti-NAFTA panderer. If critics are to be believed, the free trade pact has miraculously exported jobs from every single member to the other two partner countries.

The contrasts not just in the colour of their skin but also in age, freshness, vitality and energy - not to mention inspiring eloquence and uplifting vision - will be cruelly clear every time Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain share a stage. Mr. McCain's reputation for transparency will be hurt by refusals to release his wife's tax and his own health records. Will concerns about age and race offset each other? Against persistent rumours of Mr. McCain's legendary short temper, Mr. Obama is cool personified, a model of grace under pressure. His campaign staff have seen him lose his temper and yell only twice in four years. Tellingly, through all the ups and downs, the triumphs and tribulations of a tough and gruelling Democratic contest, Mr. Obama has managed to retain not just his good humour, poise and equanimity, but also the respect, admiration and affection of his staff. If the campaign is a pointer to how a president will run his administration, the stars seem aligned.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.