Always-interesting Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal about the current state of the Presidential race and why it’s suddenly starting to look like a close contest between Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) when—earlier—it had looked like an Obama-blowout was in the making.

Noonan’s central thesis is that people are just now starting to look at the race, and so things are just beginning to settle enough that the polling reflects (to a point) how people will actually be voting in November. The ‘paying attention’ aspect of Presidential races seems to get short shrift by the media, but what happens before the moment people start paying attention is essentially inconsequential. Even what’s happening now, though more relevant to November’s outcome than what has happened previous, isn’t that important—most people decide who they will vote for in the final month before the election.

The current state of the election could not have been predicted last fall—a mere nine months ago. While the Democratic campaign had already settled into an Obama vs. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) race, it could easily have gone either way. The changes on the Republican side were more drastic, with the race appearing at the time to be between Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA), Mayor Rudy Guiliani (R-New York City), and Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR). McCain, now the presumptive nominee, was being written off by the pundits as an also-ran with no chance of winning.

What happened? Republicans started paying attention to the race, and began gravatating toward McCain as having better chances than the others of uniting the party and winning the election. Guiliani’s campaign implosion, in particular, was the direct result of people beginning to pay attention. When the party knew nothing more than Guiliani’s 9/11/2001 leadership as Mayor of New York City, he looked like a great prospect. When Republicans actually looked at his policy stances as the primaries approached, they discovered that he was a social liberal who did not reflect their values and—accordingly—his poll numbers tanked.

The Clinton campaign was faced with a similar shift, though not nearly as spectacular as the Guiliani/McCain reversal of fortune. Early in the primary season, Senator Clinton consistently polled ahead of Senator Obama. As people began paying more and more attention to Clinton and her consistent record of political opportunism, her numbers began to drop and she—eventually—narrowly lost the presumptive nomination to Obama.

As a political observer, I do think the Democratic Party made the right choice in selecting Obama over Clinton. Clinton’s record of flip-flopping on important issues for reasons of political expediency makes Senator John Kerry (D-MA), the party’s 2004 nominee who earned a reputation as a flip-flopper, look like a consistent, principled statesman . . . no easy feat. Almost any of the frontrunner Republican candidates likely would have trounced her handily in November. Ultimately, what will kill a politician’s chances is not how few people like them, but how many actively dislike them—and lots and lots of people actively dislike Hillary Clinton.

Obama, however, has no easy path ahead of him despite what the early poll numbers indicated. McCain is weakest with the right-wing Republican base (who will vote for him anyway simply because he is more right-wing than Obama), and strongest with the moderates and centrists who are generally the deciding factor in an election. Obama, on the other hand, appeals strongly to much of the Democratic base but will have a difficult time bringing the moderates and centrists to his side. His strongest trump card is consistent opposition to the occupation of Iraq, which has become unpopular with moderates, but his lack of a concrete disentanglement plan will be a turn-off unless he successfully appropriates the Biden-Gelb plan or some other plan that stands up to logical scrutiny—and he must do so quickly, as more and more people are now starting to pay attention.

McCain, on the other hand, has kept relatively quiet until recently—shrewdly giving the public a chance to ‘overload’ on Obama-mania before he swoops in and makes a stir of his own, as he has begun doing lately. In private conversation with aquaintences about this election, especially early on where they kept asking me why McCain was running such a poor and quiet campaign, I kept telling them that the smartest thing for McCain to do was to keep quiet and let the media fawn over Obama until the last 30, 60, or 90 days before the election since that’s when people start paying attention. From here onward to November is when McCain and Obama will make or break their respective campaigns, and Obama has already worn out much of his easy welcome with the media and the tangentially-involved voters who are just beginning to look seriously at the candidates.

Many of us have not made up our minds. Even I, having followed this election with increasing seriousness since the major parties determined their presumptive nominees (actual nominations will be made at the conventions—August 25-28 for the Democrats, September 1-4 for the Republicans), have not formally made a decision—though I certainly have my inclinations and instincts. I decide in September and make endorsements on this web site at that time.

So what’s my prediction?

Based on everything so-far, and an assumption that Senator McCain will launch a strong advertising and campaigning push in the last 30 days of this election cycle, I believe the poll numbers will shift in McCain’s favor as we edge closer to Novemeber 4. Obama, unless he significantly hones and fleshes-out his message beyond the words ‘hope’ and ‘change’, will have a hard time maintaining his nominal lead or even maintaining statistical parity with a strong McCain onlaught in the final days of this election, especially as media outlets begin normalizing their coverage between the two candidates (they have, thus far, spent a disproportionate amount of broadcasting time on Obama).

If I were to predict the election outcome today, I believe that McCain will win the general election. Most likely, his win will be narrow (less than 5 percent) but could potentially be larger if Obama makes major errors between now and then. The demographic that will most-likely put McCain ‘over the top’ will be centrists and moderates who believe that foreign policy experience and a hard line against terrorism and radical Islam are necessities for a president in our post-9/11 world.

Of course, this prediction should not be considered an endoresement (again, my decision will come in September), nor should it be considered ‘final’. It is predicated on assumptions—that McCain will engage in a tough advertising push, and Obama will fail to sucessfully hone and flesh-out his message—that may or may not come true. It is, at best, to be considered an ‘educated guess’ based on current information and trends that can change at any time. Whatever happens, it’ll be interesting to watch!

Scott Bradford has been building web sites and using them to say what he thinks since 1995, which tended to get him in trouble with power-tripping assistant principals at the time. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration from George Mason University, but has spent most of his career (so far) working on public- and private-sector web sites. He is not a member of any political party, and brands himself an ‘independent constitutional conservative.’ In addition to holding down a day job and blogging about challenging subjects like politics, religion, and technology, Scott is also a devout Catholic, gun-owner, bike rider, and music lover with a wife, two cats, and a dog.