…And Starring Barrack Obama as Muhammad Ali

It was 34 years ago today that Muhammad Ali met World Heavyweight Champion George Foreman in the classic “Rumble in the Jungle.” In the suffocating Zaire heat, Ali had a plan for his bigger, harder-punching opponent – get hit. Repeatedly. While not generally considered a sound strategy in boxing, Ali lay against the ropes, covered his face and let Foreman pound away. Ali would taunt Foreman during energy-sapping clinches, telling him to punch harder, and Foreman obliged. Fans of the challenger in the audience would be forgiven for getting anxious watching him absorb all those blows, but Ali had a plan. By the sixth round, Foreman was sucking hot wind and his shots were getting wild. In between occasional quick jabs, Ali continued to lean back until, finally, in the eighth round he sprang from the ropes and landed an explosive combination that sent an exhausted Foreman into a slow pirouette to the mat. Knock-Out.

Ali dubbed it the “rope-a-dope” strategy, and it’s what Barack Obama has been doing to John McCain.

Since abandoning his “happy warrior” strategy almost immediately in favor of going after Obama with the heavy lumber of cultural attacks and guilt-by-association, McCain has spent his campaign flailing away at Obama, making him the main focus rather than what a McCain presidency would do for America. And with each shot to the gut – Wright, “bitter,” Ayers, “Socialist,” Khalidi – many Democrats were chewing on their fingers, fretting about when Obama would punch back, frustrated that he didn’t seem aggressive enough (“Ali Boma Ye!”) [www.salon.com] But Obama remained calm. He had a plan. You can’t run on a campaign of offering a different kind of politics if you don’t, y’know, practice a different kind of politics. McCain’s non-stop mud-throwing drove up his own negatives and caused moderates and independents to flee in droves while Obama remained relatively unscathed, if not stronger. Now, in the eighth round, McCain’s credibility is exhausted. His campaign has been flailing for some time, having thrown everything in Steve Schmidt’s Rovian bag of tricks without success. Off-message and distracted by internal strife, they are ripe for the picking.

And here comes Obama off the ropes. His “closing argument” speech [www.demconwatchblog.com] delivered Monday in Ohio was as tight and succinct a summation of his message – and of the big-D Democratic ideal – as I’ve ever heard. The importance of helping the middle class, boosting the economy through alternative energy, common sense foreign policy and, of course, tying the Bush albatross around John McCain’s neck – it was all there. His latest campaign ad – “His Choice” [www.youtube.com] – uses McCain’s own words admitting he doesn’t know much ‘bout the economy and might have to rely on his vice-president to provide economic “expertise.” The ad’s title is revealed to be the image of a winking Sarah Palin; a heavy roundhouse right in the kisser. Then there was last night’s 30-minute infomercial, a prime time address laying out a host of specific proposals to seal the deal with as many viewers as possible. And finally, the next five days of the results of Obama’s unprecedented ground game, working mad scientist Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy for all its worth, with GOTV plans in red states McCain can’t afford to defend.

Muhammad Ali was strong and fast and had the gift of the gab, but what made him the Greatest of All Time was he was a master tactician. Like Ali, Obama has been a patient fighter, focused not on winning an individual round or news cycle, but on winning the fight. Obama has timed his most powerful shots for maximum effect on a punched-out opponent. McCain may yet drag himself off the canvas, but the ref is counting to ten. And it’s hot.

– Michael Turner