SO, ALL of a sudden with the wailing on Wall Street and with Congress scrambling to avert national economic disaster, the presidential race seems a tad more serious, no?

Maybe we're done with the season of lipsticked pigs and moose-shooting mamas, kindergarten sex and who owns how many houses or what kinds of cars.

Voters, even mainstream media, seem (for the first time) focused on the actual issues of what's best for the short- and long-term economy and who's best to oversee it.

And what a time for focus.

The race is headed toward the home stretch. Independent daily tracking polls show a virtual dead heat. Other polls, including in Pennsylvania, show basically the same thing.

Most have Barack Obama slightly ahead of John McCain, but usually within the margin of error.

A USA Today-Gallup Poll on who would be better at handling Wall Street is no different: Obama 43 percent, McCain 42.

On top of this dead heat, the first debate plays out Friday night in Mississippi.

It should boom across the political landscape like a big brass drum.

And even though its topic is foreign policy and national security, it's impossible to think that one or both candidates won't work in lots of references to the economy and its importance to all aspects of policymaking.

Who benefits from this sudden change in the political landscape?

Well, you'd think any shift from fringe issues to serious bread-and-butter politics, given the state of the nation, helps Democrats and Obama.

"Normally, the party out of power [that would be Obama's] benefits when the economy goes sour," Princeton associate professor of politics Melissa Harris-Lacewell tells me.

But hold on.

She also says that this race has quirks that can toss normalcy out the window.

First, she says, there's a divided government - a Republican White House, a Democratic Congress - which makes it tougher to target blame.

And neither candidate can be easily linked to the current administration. It's not like McCain is Bush's vice president.

Plus, McCain successfully applies the "maverick" brand to his hide (and his running mate's) and, for whatever reasons, voters buy it.

And, says Harris-Lacewell, Obama is in two "potentially troublesome" positions.

First, his strongest asset in defeating Hillary Clinton in the primaries was his judgment in opposing the Iraq war, which she supported. But the war is overshadowed by the economic crisis and is less of a daily presence in the campaign than is the economy, so that asset diminishes.

"And because he's an African-American, there are voters who believe he's more inclined to expand social-services payments, increase taxes and support larger benefits . . . and when the economy is bad and the pie shrinks, nobody wants that," she says.

Given new polling and renewed discussion on the role of race in the race (some polls now suggest his race costs Obama five to six points), I turn to an expert in race and American politics.

Michael Fauntroy is an assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University and author of a new book, "Republicans and the Black Vote."

"It seems to me race is going to be a factor," he says to me, "but I don't really think we know how many points it will be."

However many it is, says

Fauntroy, there is likely nothing Obama can do to contain the number, but "there are things [through talk radio and 527-type political groups] McCain can do to increase it."

Great. Something else to watch, while focused on the serious stuff. *

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