Photo Illustration by Steve Baker, Deseret News

WASHINGTON — The most important two weeks of the presidential campaign of 2008 are about to begin, with back-to-back party conventions launching a relentless autumn drive for 270 electoral votes on Nov. 4.

The contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain is substantially closer, and substantially different on the issues, than some so-called experts were predicting a year or even a few months ago. In his convention beginning Monday in Denver, Obama will try to project the excitement surrounding his historic candidacy to a national audience, using an anticipated huge crowd at an outdoor stadium to portray his campaign as a movement, not simply a candidacy. He will need to address concerns, however, that as a first-term Illinois senator, he is unprepared to lead in a dangerous world.

In St. Paul a week later, the theme could be "steady as we go." McCain will need to allay concerns that he'll usher in a third George W. Bush term and that he is too mercurial. He'll need to capitalize on his experience, especially in foreign policy, without appearing to be too old. Republicans also will have to shore up concerns that their economic policies are stale, especially on issues like housing and jobs.

Despite McCain's significant rise in pre-convention polls, Obama still has major institutional and historical factors on his side.

Republican President Bush is very unpopular in his eighth year in office. Economic worries tend to stick to the party in power, the country is in the seventh year of war in Afghanistan and the fifth in Iraq, and the anticipation surrounding the first black nominee of a major political party cannot be underestimated.

Since World War II, Americans have tended to switch party control of the White House in eight-year time blocks. It began with Republican Dwight Eisenhower's two terms in the 1950s. He was followed by Democrats Kennedy and Johnson for eight; Republicans Nixon and Ford for eight; Democrat Carter for four; Republicans Reagan and Bush for 12; Democrat Clinton for eight; and now the second Bush for eight. It was only Jimmy Carter's and the senior Bush's implosions that interrupted the sequence, and so history would suggest that this is a pendulum-swinging year.

But two events of the summer — $4-a-gallon gasoline prices and Russia's invasion of Georgia — have benefited McCain. On the first, he seized the pro-oil drilling position. On the latter, Obama's lack of foreign policy experience has come into sharper focus, and that may have tilted his vice presidential choice to a foreign policy heavyweight like Joe Biden or Sam Nunn.

Contemporaneously, military progress in Iraq has blunted the political impact of Obama's opposition to the war, a position that had sustained him in the early stages of his Democratic primary fight with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"Confidence in the war on terror and on the situation in Iraq is at the highest level of the last four years," pollster Scott Rasmussen said. "Who would have thought a year ago Iraq would not have been an absolute lay-down issue for Barack Obama?"

McCain's decision to drill now and drill all over opened the Arizona senator to charges of flip-flopping, but it also got him on the side of a growing, if begrudging, majority of Americans. Support for more domestic and offshore drilling has spiked along with gasoline prices, and Americans "now accept drilling as a necessary evil, for the lack of a better phrase," said Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown.

Obama initially opposed drilling but eventually put it on the table as part of a more comprehensive energy independence package. But the dividing line had been set.

"The biggest thing that changed the race was John McCain's call for offshore oil drilling," said Rasmussen, who constantly polls nationally and in key battleground states. "It is not about offshore drilling, per se, but people are looking at the price of gas as the driving force in all conversations about the economy. And the fact that John McCain was looking for a new policy that was aggressively trying to find new energy was a positive economic policy."

You'll hear the talking heads talking incessantly about "convention bounce" in coming days. The immediate onus is now on Obama. If the senator from Illinois can come across as firm, resolute and prepared, both through his acceptance speech as well as what surrogates and his running mate say about him while the nation is focused on the Democrats, Obama will have gone a long way in passing the commander-in-chief test. If he does not, McCain's convention in St. Paul could launch the final path of an improbable journey to the White House. A year ago, all but a few McCainiacs had given him up as politically dead.

McCain's road map to victory is now clearer than it was even a month ago. Besides his national surge, he has drawn even or even ahead in key swing states from Pennsylvania to Minnesota. For all the hype of North Dakota and Alaska being in play, the 2008 campaign is shaping into a familiar battleground race, with the industrial Midwest and a few states in the South, West and Sun Belt deciding the next president of the United States.

Contact GNS political writer Chuck Raasch at [email protected].