First of all, it's apparent that despite the claims of many bloggers, there has definitely been a tightening in the race.
On June 29, Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) led Senator John McCain (R-AZ) by 7.1 points. Today he leads by 3.0. Now while many of the polls have Obama leading by a number within the margin of error, it's stretches credibility to the extreme to think that the error is in the same direction in all of them. So, Obama still leads, and by a respectable margin if you compare to the last two elections. Still, to say that the race hasn't changed is denying reality.
However, that's not the main point I want to make. I'm more interested in the individual numbers than the differences. Currently the RCP average has Obama at 44.8 and McCain at 41.8. These are near record low numbers for both. Obama has only been below 45 a handful of times and only below 44 once, way back on January 17. McCain's lowest is 40.4. So, the race is tightening, but it's tightening by increasing numbers of people going to the undecided column. And they're leaving both candidates.
I don't know what that means for McCain. Maybe it means that independents are turned off by his "negative" ads. Maybe he's the real "flip-flopper" this time around and people don't like that. And I don't know what he can do about it. Realistically, not much. This has been and continues to be Obama's election to lsoe.
The debates are crucial for Obama. He's in a similar position to then Governor George W. Bush (R-TX) in 2000. People like him, but they're just not sure they trust him to run the country. He must appear Presidential in the debates. He doesn't have to win, but he can't be made to look weak or confused by McCain. I think the bar is a little higher than it was for Bush in 2000, because he doesn't have the advantage that Bush had in the press lowering expectations for him. Instead, the press has continuously raised expectations for Obama, telling us (wrongly) what a great orator he is and (rightly) how intelligent he is.
Still, I don't think he has to do much in the debates, just not commit any serious mistakes. If McCain hasn't convinced enough people to dislike Obama by that time, then Obama probably wins the election easily. I think McCain is probably a better debater than Obama, because Obama clearly doesn't think well on his feet. However, he has the advantage of having gone though the 84 debates the Democrats had in the primaries (what? it wasn't 84? sure felt like it).
Of course, there's always the chance that something could change the race dramatically.