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Commentary: Political preseason is over. Let the games begin!

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: Most Americans treat the primaries like the football preseason
  • Now real campaign begins, and candidates need to win week by week, he says
  • Rollins: Campaign ads have addressed trivia, not the real issues
  • Campaigns are tough and vicious; if you lose, you go home, Rollins says
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Ed Rollins, who served as political director for President Reagan, is a Republican strategist who was national chairman of Mike Huckabee's campaign.

Ed Rollins says John McCain's acceptance speech may have to compete with the Giants-Redskins game.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Like most sports fans, I hate the preseason and can't wait for the regular season, when the games count. Many of us don't even watch the preseason games, because they are more or less glorified practice sessions.

As hard as it may be for us political junkies to believe, that's how many American voters view the primary season.

Beginning with tonight's opening of the Democratic convention, the pre-season is over; and what happens now really counts.

In the National Football League, the season begins next week opposite John McCain's acceptance speech. The defending Super Bowl champs, the New York Giants, play their league rival Washington Redskins on national television at 7 p.m. ET September 4.

I assume the convention planners missed that one, or they are praying for no overtime and hoping everyone shifts from the game to hear McCain's speech. That's not the way I usually wind down from a game, but maybe skipping the postgame analysis and listening to a political speech with a few beers may appeal to blue-collar guys. I doubt it.

Unlike few modern presidential campaigns, this one starts on a level playing field. Polls show that the race is a virtual tie. It starts, like the game, at 0-0.

On one side: the old pro who has survived and learned in the trenches of war and politics. He has waited years to get his chance, to take those leadership skills honed as warrior, an outsider and a maverick to lead this country in a new direction.

We "wise guys" all had John McCain dead and buried a year ago. After all, his campaign was broke, and his staff was in disarray.

His support had dropped to 11 percent in the Gallup poll, he was trailing Rudolph Giuliani by 3 to 1, and he was running behind Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney.

Next week, those three will be singing his praises at the Republican convention.

McCain's comeback surprises no one who has watched him over the years.

On the other side is the great young prospect Barack Obama. He is new to the game, but his skills at public speaking, fundraising and organizing are ones the Democratic team dreams about. He beat out the veteran, battle-tested and highly respected (by her party) former first lady, Sen. Hillary Clinton. Just a year ago, she was the sure winner, leading by 2-1 in the polls.

Obama's campaign was smarter, and he emerged the primary victor. As so often happens with Democrats, they sometimes think winning the primary gives them a sure ticket to the White House.

Fortunately for my party, the battlefield is full of the bodies of presumed winners who were ahead of Republicans who they thought couldn't win in the summer and then lost in the fall. Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry come quickly to mind.

Obama's slip in the polls has caused a lot of Democrats to second-guess their choices and think "Oh, God; not again! Did we pick the wrong liberal one more time?" But Obama may be different. He and his team have shown us all the state of the art of modern politics.

But saying that neither man has made the final sale is an understatement. Both of them need to define themselves and tell us how their presidency will be different from that of the present occupant of the Oval Office. The country is desperately waiting for the moving vans marked "Crawford, Texas, one-way delivery."

Like the NFL preseason, the campaigns have been one minor skirmish after another. No real damage, but no real progress, either. The lofty above-the-fray promises of a different uplifting campaign got junked with the first jab to the nose.

Both sides are guilty. Some of the campaign commercials and videos were humorous and childlike, and some were downright dishonest. Elitism; Paris Hilton and rock stars; how many houses do you have? These are totally irrelevant matters to most of us.

There are issues that aren't irrelevant: How are we going to deal with a new aggressive, muscular Russia? How are we going to deal with a continuing weakened economy? How are we going to rebuild our depleted military and take care of the young men and women who have given us so much over the past several years in Iraq?

And if you've got answers for all of that, then address illegal immigration, a falling-apart infrastructure and an educational system that is leaving millions of kids behind in every major urban area in the country.

In my younger days, I was a boxer. A wise old coach (now deceased) taught me early in my career that in order to win the fight, you must win the rounds, one by one.

A winning fight is an accumulation of punches that land and damage your opponent. The same is true in a campaign. But instead of rounds, you've got to win the weeks. Starting today, you've got ten weeks to Election Day.

Obama should win this week, his convention week. McCain must win next week, his convention week.

Then whoever wins five of the next eight weeks should emerge the winner.

It's never easy. During those weeks, three presidential debates and a vice president debate will occur, and thousands of commercials, dozens of speeches and hundreds of sound bites will be sent your way. But out of all that clutter, a sense of who the candidates are and what they believe in should emerge.

There are no silver or bronze medals in American politics. It's tough, and it's vicious. You win, you go on and govern. You lose, you go home. Or at least back to the Senate, in this case. But your voice or your prestige is never louder than it is right now. Use it all. Leave nothing in the tank. Fight for what you believe!

And the questions voters will have to answer is, "who do you want in your living room on your television sets every day for the next four years? Who do you trust to defend your children and grandchildren's future?"

Barack Obama has been called "the One," John McCain "the old warrior." At the end of this campaign, only one of them will be called "Mr. President."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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