I thought I’d do something a bit different, and stroll through the superficial world of media optics and bread and circus manipulation. Because at this stage in the political process — only three months away from both party conventions following lengthy primary seasons and many political events — all of the candidates should have consolidated their advance teams, their media prep folks, and their ability to present an "image" to the public. It is in this level of attention to detail that you get a real sense of how professionally and seriously a campaign may or may not be taking themselves and their candidate.

Last night gave us an opportunity to view all three major candidates, one right after the other. Both Clinton and Obama were fantastic — and McCain was like a slapped-together Ambien nightcap with a codeine chaser. Yawn.

I’ll show you what I mean. We began the night with McCain’s speech from New Orleans Kenner, Louisiana:

Sen. McCain’s makeup was dreadful — it was the sort of caked on look you expect at Aunt Gertrude’s wake, not on camera for a major address. He looked pasty at the sides, flushed at the front, and as though they had spackled White-Out under his eyes to cover the bags and dark circles to try and make him look less exhausted and worn. And he was sweating on his forehead and cheeks, which means someone didn’t pay attention to the temperature inside well before he came out to speak. It was not HDTV friendly, let me tell you.

Further, that green background was nasty — I’m not certain if it was creamed spinach green or Saudi flag green, but either way it was a horrible choice. (NOTE: McCain is giving a live speech right now on MSNBC, and it wasn’t just an ugly background from last night. It’s a travelling ugly campaign background they are using again today. Double ugh.) The sadly sparse "Honor" signs that about three people were trying to wave in front of the CNN cameras while Steve Schmidt was putting on a squinched brave face for the McCain camp prior to the speech just looked pitiful.

Moreover, it looked like they were having a rally in someone’s basement, and they couldn’t muster up more than a hundred or so dudes from the local monster truck rally or honky tonk. The lighting was abysmal — it’s top down, which makes McCain’s neck look even more craggy than it already did in contrast to the smoothed and polished skin on his shiny forehead. (Botox, anyone?) And the crowd had no real lighting, no cameras, nothing. Which matched their tepid reactions — I spent the entire speech wondering if they were trying to clap, boo, cheer or what — and that pretty much seems to sum up how they were feeling, too. McCain still cannot read a teleprompter, and it is painful to watch his eye jerks and twitches — especially last night, when he seemed to be having a contact lens problem in his left eye, which kept winking off and on throughout the speech. Distracting.

My favorite part was when McCain talked about being disappointed in the Bush Administration’s implementation of their Iraq strategy being a failure and maybe two people clap. Hilarious.

Really, a lesson in what not to do for staging and optics for a national television audience. And McCain has had close to two months to consolidate a functioning media team and advance folks. If they can’t even get something this basic down for a night wherein they were guaranteed some national media coverage, how badly are they letting all the other detail issues slide? That’s a question the GOP has to be asking itself this morning, because the speech itself was horrible on top of McCain looking and sounding half-assed and dull.

Let’s move on to Sen. Clinton’s rally in New York:

First of all, the choice of that indigo blue was perfect. She looks fantastic in it, her make-up is lovely (it looked great on my HDTV last night), and she looked fresh albeit tinged with a little melancholy (understandably so). The lighting is great. Oh, and look — she has an actual crowd of people — behind, in front, on all sides — all of whom want to be there cheering her on (as opposed to the McCain crowd which may have gotten coupons to use at the KFC afterward or something for attending, it was that lukewarm in there).

Her speech delivery was smooth, polished, and confident. She knew her marks, she hit them well — and she exuded an enormous amount of warmth when talking about how much the support of her voters and staffers, family and friends has meant to her throughout this long campaign cycle. You could tell that this was tough — to come so achingly close to a presidential nod, how could it not be? — but she was remarkably cheerful and ready to keep pushing forward on the issues that matter to her and, more importantly, to her supporters who needed to hear that last from her — that their concerns mattered to her and that she would keep fighting for them.

The mention of health care was a significant point in the speech. When you watch it, you can see how much this issue means to her, especially in the context of the supporter she talks about at the end who cannot get health insurance because of a pre-existing condition.

The lighting of the audience was very well done — you could see individual faces, some smiling, some straining to smile as they come to grips with the end of a long campaign season. Just a well-done bit of staging, all-around, and after her speech you could really see how much so many of the folks on the stage who had worked on her campaign or supported her as members of Congress really love her. I thought Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee was going to burst into tears at one point, from the exhaustion and emotion — but all of those people really looked like they wanted to be right there last night — it was important to them.

Contrast that with the McCain rally — and you begin to see some of the problems the GOP is facing within its own party — and why the slime machine is going to have to stoke a lot of hatred against Obama come November, because love for McCain seemingly isn’t exactly welling up in the hearts of a whole lot of their usual base.

And now for the Obama rally, which is a study in what to do with staging and optics:

Now this is what I call advance work — the hall was full to the rafters, the enthusiasm in the crowd was enormous, and the lighting was superbly done — both for the audience and the stage. They had camera crews throughout the hall, so you got views of the candidate’s interaction with the crowd (especially at the end of the speech on MSNBC — it was brilliantly shot), individual faces from the crowd during the speech, people behind and in front and at the sides of the stage and further up — really, meticulously planned and staged.

Barack Obama looked energized, pumped to have made it to the end but ready to head forward. But also very well aware of the enormous undertaking that is ahead of him — and the responsibilities and burdens of it for the whole of the nation, you could almost feel it weigh on him as he settled into the speech.

The tie he was wearing, a sort of aquamarine blue had an incredible sheen on our HDTV while the suit was a great choice as well. When you compare it to the McCain shoulder pad suit and grandpa’s old tie from the back of the closet look? No question who looks like they are moving forward and who looks like they are stuck in 1984.

Obama’s speech delivery was flawless last night. More than that, though, he put in human notes about his family — especially the emotional moment about his grandmother — that were wonderfully delivered. His reach-out to Sen. Clinton was especially well-crafted, gracious and seemed heartfelt — and a nice way to begin to reach-out to at least some of her supporters as well. The die-hards on either side will keep up the squabbling for a while, I’m certain, but we have to move from "us versus them" to just thinking about "us."

He can read the teleprompter for his speech without the jerky eye issues McCain has, and his delivery from it is fluid, not stop and go. (McCain, at one point trying to woo women Clinton voters, stopped in the middle of his pitch to them to do a big nose sniff, which was a lovely sound on the mike, let me tell you. For a second, I thought we might have a loogie in the making. Ugh, what a turn-off.)

In short, the Democrats both came off looking like competent, professional people who took the campaign and themselves and their commitment to supporters and the country seriously. McCain? Came off as a half-assed, unprofessional basement speech which he’d maybe done a single read-through on while munching on a sandwich on the bus.

If this is the level of attention to detail McCain and his advisors would bring to the Oval Office, I can say that I’ve had more than enough slack-assed behavior from the President to last a lifetime. If this small peek into campaign preparedness is any indication, considering this was the Obama campaigns first real salvo, we are in for one helluva campaign going into November. What do you guys think?