Recession? What recession?

In the last 36 hours so much has been written and said about Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) expected Pennsylvania victory that any analysis I could add would be, to paraphrase the victor, “commentary you can Xerox.” Chris Matthews summed it up well on Tuesday evening. Speaking of his colleagues in the media, he said, “Trying to keep this game going, we’ve created the delusion that somehow this race is still open.”

As former President Ronald Reagan famously said, “Numbers are stubborn things.” And the numbers are not likely to throw in the towel between now and the last week of August, when Democrats convene in Denver. Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) is going to have the largest number of delegates, the most popular votes and the most states won. While he still lost among Clinton’s most reliable “lunch box Democrats” Tuesday night, he closed the gap among white men and older voters despite the attack ads and the press focus on guns, God and bitterness. Older white voters may be warming to a candidate of color and cooling to the attack tactics of the Clintons. Obama can close this deal if he just gets back on message. Remember how his high-road concession speech in New Hampshire set him up for a long run of victories?

I’ve been reluctantly persuaded that this drawn-out battle might help the Democratic nominee by increasing enthusiasm for the general election. The events of the past few weeks convince me that is not the case. The increasingly vitriolic tone of the campaign has taken both candidates off message. Far too many Americans see them as being engaged in petty, purely political arguments. The New York Times got it right Tuesday, calling Pennsylvania “even meaner, more vacuous, more desperate, and more filled with pandering” than any preceding contest. No campaign team in American history is better at running such a campaign than Hillary Clinton’s. If Barack Obama agrees to play by her rules, it is hard to blame the media for making that the lede of every story. “Let’s you and her fight” is a tactic we’ve been using to sell papers and attract eyeballs since the printing press was invented.

Into this maelstrom steps the man whom nearly two-thirds of Americans can’t wait to see moving out of the White House. While Hillary and Barack bicker over minutiae, our president, George W. Bush, tells us with a straight face that America is not in a recession. There may be a bit of a slowdown, but the jobs you lost, the overtime that is gone, the retail sales that have slowed and the fact you have to hock your wedding ring to buy groceries are not signs of recession. The president has economists on the payroll who assure him that is not the case.

We’re just in a bit of a rough patch that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and a few new Republicans in the Congress will get us through with a strong commitment to Bush’s war and Bush’s tax cuts. Stay the course, the president says.

The real story of this election is that America’s voters are not buying that line. Exit polls showed 90 percent of Pennsylvania voters didn’t need an economist to tell them whether or not we’re in a recession. They figured that out when they decided which bills to pay around the kitchen table once the kids are in bed. They did the math when the pink slip replaced the paycheck. They did their own analysis at the gas station, the grocery store and when they deposited those paychecks that no longer include any overtime.

While Clinton and Obama scrimmage on a field defined by bloggers, pundits and pollsters, real American voters are waiting to hear about who is going to get America out of the mess it is in. The longer the Democrats let the media play out the delegate count game, the more chance McCain has to convince voters he’s above all that. The Democrats’ narcissistic focus on their increasingly personal primary battle is allowing him to depict himself as the adult in the race.

Granted, McCain is saddled with the baggage of a Republican administration that has mismanaged its war, our economy and America’s position in the world. But at least he’s not parsing delegate counts.

Several months ago we had a Democratic contest being waged over two divergent views of America’s future. But that message has degenerated into a he said-she said dispute. If that continues almost to Labor Day, John McCain may pull off his second impossible comeback of 2008.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com