There’s a dispiriting surreal quality to this campaign season that defies rational analysis, and a tendency to talk past issues. With respect to the debates, most especially the last one, moderators and pundits seem to have become more important than candidates.

If the general public is content to form opinions on the basis of guilt by association, the wearing of flag pins and charges of elitism, the country will once again suffer from a paralysis of thought and fall back on emotional claptrap that does nothing to further substantive debate. Since when did attendance at a church and marginal connections trump pandering to special interests and the dispensing of political favors? How is it that the really tough questions seem to get so little traction and the frivolous attention grabbers make headlines?

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough has said the questions that claimed forty-five minutes of the last debate were perfectly appropriate and that Barack Obama stumbled in his answers unable to put the issues to rest. Why didn’t he, Joe opined, just say ‘Pastor Wright brought me to Christ, the most important thing in my life and be done with the whole matter’? Why should that have been Obama’s response? Who is Scarborough to put words in someone else’s mouth according to his particular view except that he, like so many other arrogant media personalities, wraps himself in a mantel of intellectual superiority to which he is most assuredly not entitled.

Another favorite gambit for Scarborough and others is that the public wants to know if a candidate is “one of us?” And, since the media seems to call the shots much of the time, candidates rush around in an exhausting marathon drinking beer, bowling, recalling tender moments at the lake shooting small birds or whatever. But as some have said, we’ve tried the ill-informed, glad-hand approach for eight years; isn’t it about time we took stock of ourselves, our country and the world and elected leaders who may be something like ‘us’ only a lot smarter and wiser – – the elite if you will, as the dictionary defines them – – “the best or most skilled members of a group”.

Will John McCain’s “experience” be examined more closely with the passage of time? Will claims of longevity in the Senate be enough of a recommendation to overcome his seeming confusion with respect to Sunnis and Shiites and our mis-adventures in the Middle East, his much-touted area of expertise? Will his peculiar vision and strange answers to questions about past foibles, his wife’s vast fortune, his temper and his parceling of favors ever receive the attention focused on Obama’s former pastor for example? When George Stephanopoulos asked him if seeking the support of Pastor Hagee, whose notorious views are well known, was a mistake, McCain responded “probably, but I’m glad to have his support.” Say what?

And when McCain says ‘listen my friend’ I didn’t mean we would be fighting in Iraq for fifty or a hundred years but that our troops might still be there, just not getting g killed. Such a scenario implies the achievement of a clear victory, and the timetable for that has never been determined. Neither does his past association with the S & L Keating mess seem to resonate with the same intensity of, say, Pastor Wright’s remarks. Will more recent disclosures about his political influence in support of Arizona developer, Donald R.Diamond become more of an issue in the general election as well as the large contingent of lobbyists who staff his campaign? Perhaps the media will rise to the occasion and cover those stories. Certainly the Democratic nominee should.

In the meantime, voters will continue to be immersed in the detritus of sub-prime debate without touching upon those things that matter most to ordinary Americans – –  like questions about Senator Clinton’ patriotism since she doesn’t wear a flag pin.