What's the difference between presidential politics and basketball? In hoops, the teams jump ball at center court and then run to the extreme ends to score goals. In presidential politics the candidates generally start from extreme ideological ends, seeking their party's nomination and then, when they've clinched it, run to the center. Generally.
Barack Obama's playing pretty close to form. He won the Democratic nomination with a fast break to the left around Hillary Clinton, who thought she could coast right from the first whistle as a general election centrist. By initially supporting the Iraq war Hillary figured she'd neutralize any Republican and show that women are as tough as men. But Obama's consistent opposition to the war secured him the MoveOn crowd and their Internet legions, as well as the mainstream media (which were less enamored of both Clintons than Hillary and Bill imagined).
If Obama could win the general election with an overwhelming popular vote alone, he might keep going to his left. But he has to play electoral college politics and pick up some swing states, like Ohio, and maybe also a few traditional red states, including Virginia. So besides reneging on public campaign financing limits, we see Obama starting to modify his stands on everything from NAFTA to nuclear power. He's now stressing, not a timetable for pulling out of Iraq, but how "careful" he'll be in leaving. And most of all, he's playing up his mother and grandmother's Midwestern roots. His supporters in the mainstream media may deplore some of these moves -- as NBC's Andrea Mitchell did regarding Obama's "flip-flop" on public financing -- but with Mitchell they will applaud Obama's "pragmatism."
McCain, on the other hand, plays by his own rules, and he's all over the court. Primary rivals either self-destructed (like Rudy Giuliani and Fred Thompson) or (like Mitt Romney) fell prey to an insistence on ideological purity that even the sainted Reagan never fulfilled. So "The Maverick" -- written off after co-sponsoring comprehensive immigration reform -- was the last man left standing.
McCain started at center court and, for many of the GOP faithful, he's still at center court, dribbling out the clock. They don't trust him on border security, across-the-board tax cuts or judicial nominees. They can't understand why he'll give governors a veto over off-shore oil drilling and won't budge on ANWR. In fact, all they really like about McCain is his personal heroism and his hawkish stands on spending and winning the Iraq War.
And one other thing, which may be crucial. They suspect that Hillary supporters not sold on Obama may settle for McCain -- as they would not have done for a more consistently conservative candidate. These voters worry that Obama is too inexperienced, too elitist, and -- for all his Midwestern talk -- too much tied to the inner city politics of grievance, including the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama is now suggesting that these voters are racist, and some of them probably are. But others would be quite happy to support an African-American like Colin Powell.
So don't leave the arena, because presidential politics resembles basketball in one other way: an awful lot of games go right down to the buzzer.