My Monday column for the FT returns to the way the Democrats are mishandling the campaign. And it notes that the Republicans are doing the same, after their own fashion. Here it is:

If Barack Obama loses this election to John McCain - something which, for the first time, I regard as a real possibility - history will point to August 29 as the pivotal moment. That was when Mr McCain announced that Sarah Palin would be his running-mate, and when livid Democrats and their friends in the media voiced their feelings about her and much of the electorate, and gravely harmed their candidate's prospects.

For Mr McCain to win the election against the odds that faced him pre-Palin - with the economy in the tank and the incumbent Republican president setting records for unpopularity - would be sensational enough. For this to happen because of his vice-presidential pick, a decision that is usually of next to no consequence, beggars belief. The Democrats had to bring all their resources to getting themselves into this fix. They proved equal to the task.

As I argued last week, Mr Obama's own initial reaction to the Palin nomination was exactly right. All the party had to do was follow his lead. Mr Obama, in effect, would give her enough rope; her inadequacies would reveal themselves in due course; it cost nothing, in the meantime, to be courteous, and to keep pressing on the issues, where the Democrats still enjoy an advantage with most voters. Ms Palin's first television interview last week, an adequate but far from stellar performance, affirmed the wisdom of that course.

But the Democratic talking-heads had to exult in their disdain for Ms Palin and all she represents - namely, a good part of the electorate whose support Mr Obama needs. In the space of a few days, they irreversibly damaged Mr Obama's candidacy and transformed this election.

Subsequent developments reflect poorly on both parties, in my view. Are the Democrats learning, and trying to correct their error? No, for the most part, just the opposite. Are the Republicans pressing their advantage with a confident, principled campaign focused on the issues that matter? Again, no.

Certainly, the Democrats can see they are in a hole. Somehow, though, the word has gone out: "Keep digging." Mr Obama is also urged to be less cool and lose his temper. Voters adore an angry candidate, you see. "Dig faster, and be more angry," is the advice coming down from the political geniuses who decided it was a fine idea to laugh at Ms Palin in the first place. A recurring television image in the past few days has been the split-screen contrast between a serenely smiling Republican operative and a fulminating red-faced Democrat about to have a stroke.

Efforts to smear the governor proceed at a frantic pace. My guess would be that there are now more journalists on assignment in Alaska than bothered to turn up for the Republican convention in St Paul, sifting through dustbins, interrogating Palin family acquaintances (extra credit for those with a grievance) and subjecting Ms Palin's expenses claims to a fanatical scrutiny which I dare say their own record-keeping, or that of most senators, might not withstand.

Of course, they will find things. They may even find something important. But the sheer swarming zeal for trivial malfeasance and family embarrassments is rapidly raising the bar for impropriety. I think that many voters - and not just committed Republicans - find this whole spectacle disgusting, so on top of everything else Ms Palin is now getting a sympathy vote.

Among seasoned Democratic politicians, the picture is more mixed. Joe Biden, the vice-presidential nominee, appears to get it. His stump speech has started to include obliging remarks about Ms Palin, which suggests he is approaching the forthcoming television debate in the correct frame of mind. If he can stay polite and respectful while laying bare the gaps in Ms Palin's knowledge and experience, and by highlighting her positions on social issues, which are unappealing to many centrists, he can undo some of the damage of recent days.

But compare this with the comment of Carol Fowler, chairman of the South Carolina Democratic party, who said late last week that Ms Palin's main qualification for office was that she has not had an abortion. Brilliant! Even now, with the polls giving their verdict, there is much more like that. And Democrats wonder why they cannot get the debate back on to their issues.

Republicans are not going to help them do it while things are going so well for them. This may be understandable, but let us be clear - this is not to their credit. If Mr McCain were the kind of leader he claims to be, he would want to be elected for his platform. His policy proposals, not his vapid commitment to "change Washington", would be to the fore. More than this, he would also want to bind the country together, and restore its moral strength and sense of purpose. He would strive to be a unifier. Mr Obama makes that claim, with seeming sincerity, and it is the best thing about his candidacy.

Democrats will deny it, but they opened this new front in the culture war by their response to the Palin nomination. The mess they are in is their own fault. They still seem intent on driving significant numbers of women and moderates over to the other side and Mr McCain's political instinct is doubtless to help this rift in the electorate widen further. It could be a winning strategy. But good politics is not the same thing as responsible leadership. I intend it as a compliment to Mr McCain when I say that if his means to victory in this election is to divide the country, it is a victory he should not want.


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