For the second-to-last Presidential debate, I wrote this in my debate preview:
John McCain is down in the polls, and sinking farther every day. The shine is off his running mate, states previously considered “safe” for Republicans are suddenly toss-ups, and McCain desperately needs a game-changer.
He won’t get it.
Another eight days have passed, and McCain’s electoral map hole is even deeper. The economy has dealt him nothing but bad cards, and yet to win the election McCain must run the table in key states.
Remember traditional key states? They include Ohio (Obama up 3.4%), Pennsylvania (Obama up 13.4), Florida (Obama up 5), Nevada (Obama up 3), New Mexico (Obama up 7.3), Colorado (Obama up 5.2), Wisconsin (Obama up 10.4), and Michigan (where McCain pulled his campaign out altogether, and Obama is up double digits).
The electoral map is full of toss-up states which should be solid Republican states. In fact, Obama is currently leading in no fewer than 9 states which George Bush carried in 2004.
If McCain doesn’t change the game dramatically, he will lose the election in a land-slide. Tonight is his last best opportunity. The question now, as it was eight days ago, is can he change the game?
McCain’s last big choice will be settled tonight. Will he stay above the fray, remain “Presidential,” only delivering soft blows to Obama tonight while attempting to explain what kind of President he would be? Or will McCain abandon his years-long “good guy” persona, and instead take over as chief Republican pit bull, and attempt to deliver a body blow to Obama which will cause voters to take a second look at their options?
Make no mistake – neither option is a winner for McCain. If he doesn’t attack hard, he will lose. Swing voters who currently seem to have few remaining doubts about Obama will have no reason to begin doubting. If he does attack hard, while he may solidify the same Republican-leaning voters who came home after the Palin V.P. choice was named, McCain will cut himself off from the very swing voters he needs to even compete in this election.
Down-ballot Republicans nation-wide need McCain to attack. They need the Republican faithful to come home and vote for them. The cost to McCain beyond this election, however, would be great. McCain invested years in his “above the partisan fray” branding, and if he attacks tonight, he will have abandoned all hope to maintain it.
Still, I think McCain would rather leave it all out on the field than concede, so I think he will attack. If he doesn’t, he would be ignoring the advice of campaign consultants who hate to lose and detest leaving cards un-played, and of the Republican candidate class which desperately needs him to round up their base and deliver it. If I’m wrong and he doesn’t attack, it will only be because he has decided for himself that he can lose in a landslide with honor, because history will blame George W. Bush, not McCain, for destroying the Republican brand (which I personally believe is the wise choice, and the accurate historical prediction).
If he does decide to attack, we’ll know it in the first 5 minutes of the show. Look for McCain to imply that Obama is trying to steal the election (key word: ACORN). Look for McCain to imply that Obama hates America (key word: Ayers).
Further complicating things for McCain is that moderator Bob Schieffer is bound to be far less passive than previous debate moderators Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, and V.P. debate moderator Gwen Ifill.
The greatest difficulty of all for John McCain is in controlling John McCain. I believe the biggest under-reported story from the second debate was that McCain almost lost control. One could see it in his face during the “that one!” moment. You could sense the frustration and tension in him throughout the second half of the show, and one could certainly sense it as he ignored Obama’s offered hand-shake following the debate, and as he and Cindy McCain left the set immediately thereafter, while the Obamas stayed for 15 more minutes, signing autographs and taking pictures with audience-members. If McCain isn’t very careful, he could have a campaign-ending melt-down.
Meanwhile, against this backdrop of seemingly-insurmountable difficulty for McCain, all Obama must do is avoid major gaffes and stave off the McCain-introduced notion that Obama is a risky and untested choice.
Sound familiar? It didn’t work for the Democratic field in the primaries either.
Post debate update: McCain did indeed attack attack attack, and sure enough, it didn’t work work work. The overnight CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll results:
Obama: 66% (up 3)
McCain: 49% (down 2)
Who was better on the economy?
Who was better on taxes?
Who seemed more like a typical politician?