Swinging for the fences



Which sounds like more compelling television tonight: the Philadelphia Phillies questing for their first World Series in 15 years - or John McCain trying to demonstrate that, politically speaking, he still has a pulse?

Granted, that's a no-brainer...particularly since the odds tonight of McCain hitting a titanic Matt Stairs home run, and sending Barack Obama to the showers in their third and final debate, and thereby reversing the dynamics of this presidential race, are roughly equivalent to the odds of Sarah Palin giving voice to an original, coherent thought.

But since I'm nonetheless drawn to the game where the winner gets the world's most powerful job, a few advance observations seem appropriate. And, given where the race stands today, let's keep it simple:

If McCain is to gain any meaningful ground on Obama, he needs to demonstrate that he is credible on the economy. Judging by all the national and key state polls, it may well be too late for McCain already. But this is his sole path to the comeback trail. He either swings for the fences and clears the yard, or he's done.

The conservative base is thirsting for McCain to confront Obama tonight on character, and presumbly expose Obama as a terrorist fellow-traveler, but this advice is vivid proof that the Republican right is out of touch this autumn with the American mainstream. Most people don't care about Bill Ayres. They're focused these days on their 401(k)s, not on whether Obama did a school project with a guy who committed crimes when Obama was eight.

The new CBS News-New York Times poll, released last night, confirms what other surveys have signaled for weeks: The more McCain attacks Obama, the more McCain sinks. The new poll reports that, while 72 percent of Americans have not changed their opinion of McCain during the past few weeks, 21 percent say they now think less of him, while only seven percent think better of him. Why? Because of his attacks on Obama, which are cited as the primary reason.

When these pollsters did their last survey, during the third week in September, 43 percent of Americans viewed Obama favorably; today, 50 percent view him favorably (his highest percentage yet), while 32 percent view him negatively. By contrast, only 36 percent now view McCain favorably, and 41 percent view him negatively. That five-point deficit is the worst McCain showing in a CBS-Times poll since the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was thought to be dead. Back then, however, he still had ample time to recover. Not anymore. The poll, which reports that Obama now leads leading McCain among likely voters by 14 points, also notes that 83 percent of Americans have made up their minds and don't expect to change them - an eight-point jump over the past three weeks.

Impressions, once formed, are difficult to change at the eleventh hour. The public, watching the first two debates, has basically decided that Obama's temperament is far better suited for crisis leadership. Even the Fox News surveys report this. Given this reality, the Obama camp should exult tonight if McCain makes good on his threat to bring up Bill Ayres. What better gift for Obama than to have McCain deliver the kind of attack that will further alienate swing voters?

What's also astounding - and symptomatic of the McCain campaign's tactical ineptitude - is that McCain has telegraphed the Ayres punch in advance. Now, if McCain doesn't bring it up, he looks timid. And if he does bring it up (or moderater Bob Schieffer brings it up), Obama will deliver a well-rehearsed response (thanks to the advance telegraphing) that likely will sound something like this: "Senator McCain, you seem to think it's important to bring up deplorable crimes that were committed when I was a child. You've also said, in your ads, that I served with Mr. Ayres on a 'radical' reform project. Well, that project was called the Annenberg Challenge. It was established by a prominent Republican - whose widow, Sen. McCain, is a donor to your campaign. Look, it's time you stopped trying to change the subject, although I understand why you do. One of your own strategists recently told the press, 'If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we'll lose.' But senator, the economic crisis is what most Americans care about. So I'll keep talking about that, even of you won't."

McCain has no choice but to contest Obama on issues turf that favors the Democrat. He gave it a try yesterday, sketching out an economic agenda that included lower capital gains taxes (a weird notion, since virtually nobody has capital gains these days), and a proposal to exempt unemployment insurance from taxes (a proposal that Obama already floated on Monday). Most interestingly, McCain did not propose a broadscale middle-class tax cut - something that conservatives have been pleading for him to do. Only Obama has proposed such a tax cut. You know that McCain must be in trouble when a new national poll (ABC News-Washington Post) reports that the Democrat, by an 11-point margin, is viewed as the candidate who is most trustworthy on the issue of taxes.

A conservative commentator, Stephen Hayes, put it best the other day. He wrote, "John McCain's campaign has no discernable central theme, no succinct answer to the most basic question voters ask as they consider their choice: Why should I choose you over the other guy?"

Either McCain effectively answers that question tonight, or he hangs up his spikes.


By the way, I'm doing a special online gig during the debate. Readers will be able to post live questions to me, and I hope to respond (to the sane ones, of my choosing) in real time. The link is here, although you can find it in graphic display on my home page, situated directly below this post.