If you watched Monday Night Football last night, you saw opportunistic brilliance on display.
No, I am not talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. I'm referring to Barack Obama's answer when Chris Berman asked him what single change he would like to see in sports. Obama's answer: "I think it is about time that we had playoffs in college football. I'm fed up with these computer rankings and this and that and the other. Get eight teams -- the top eight teams right at the end. You got a playoff. Decide on a national champion."
Here, for those of you who are not fans of college and pro football or who have not followed the ins and outs of the presidential campaign closely, is why the answer was so brilliant.
First, John McCain has pinned a lot of his hopes on wresting Pennsylvania from the Democrats.
Second, college football's national championship is now decided by an arcane system known as the Bowl Championship Series, which frequently leaves an undefeated team looking on while two other teams play for the championship. This year, Penn State's football team is looking more and more like the odd man out in the BCS.
Third, the Monday night game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins was sure to draw a huge audience in western and central Pennsylvania, the parts of the state where Obama is weakest and where McCain needs a big majority to have any hope of carrying the state.
Put all that together and Obama's answer was simply brilliant. He was saying in essence, "I want to give Penn State a fair chance," an answer sure to resonate with the audience,
Especially compared to McCain's answer, which was that he would "take significant action to prevent the spread and use of performance-enhancing substances. I think it's a game we're going to be in for a long time. What I mean by that is there is somebody in a laboratory right now trying to develop some type of substance that can't be detected, and we've got to stay ahead of it. It's not good for the athletes. It's not good for the sports."
That's a swell answer, but it was delivered to the wrong audience. This was Monday Night Football, for cryin' out loud, and a game featuring two of the NFL's most proudly physical (that's football-speak for "brutal") teams. In general, the audience watching that game is not overly concerned about steroids. And the segment of that audience that McCain really needed to speak to -- guys sitting on stools in bars in Pennsylvania nursing bottle of Iron City -- are probably less concerned than most.
In football terms, Berman gave both candidates the ball 10 yards from the end zone. Obama punched it in. McCain couldn't score.
If Obama carries Pennsylvania, remember that moment on Monday Night Football.