Can McCain Recover?

If Abba Eban were still alive, he’d probably steal a line from himself to describe the McCain campaign.

The Israeli Prime Minster once said of the Palestinians that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The same — so far — can be said of John McCain.

September wasn’t a good month for McCain, and October may be worse. Coming off a stunningly good convention, propelled by Shock and Awe Sarah, the McCain campaign promptly hid Palin from the media for weeks, only letting her out to do the Gibson and Couric interviews, both of which fueled the media chant that she isn’t qualified for the vice presidency. And then the financial crisis blew up.

McCain suspended his campaign, seeking a delay in his first debate against Obama to fly back to Washington and meet with the president and congressional leaders on the Wall Street crisis. The media condemned this as a stunt, Obama refused to delay the debate, and McCain surrendered, as he had to, and debated on schedule.

More importantly, as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) wrote for HUMAN EVENTS, McCain didn’t do what the media accused. They say McCain played the role of a “seagull colonel,” flying in, dumping on everyone, and flying out again. Instead, he voiced important support for House conservatives in that meeting. But then he threw away a huge opportunity.

After the House Republicans defeated the bailout bill, the Senate larded it up with the worst sort of earmarks and pork — the legislative sewage which McCain has made a central theme of his campaign to eliminate. But despite this, McCain joined Obama in voting for it.

In that vote, he not only abandoned a key campaign theme but also the leadership of conservatives that he claimed by supporting them in the White House meeting. Those conservatives voted the bill down in the House, only to see their supposed leader vote for it in the Senate, despite the fact that it had been so egregiously larded up. McCain’s “maverick” self-portrait vanished in that vote.

McCain’s decision to abandon Michigan to Obama was much more than an opportunity missed. When Obama abandoned North Dakota in September, there was hardly a whisper in the press. But the McCain retreat from Michigan — promptly admitted by his campaign — was turned into a major confession of weakness.

Even McCain’s running mate wanted to continue in Michigan. Sarah Palin said she and her husband would love to go into Michigan to talk to automotive workers and others suffering from the economic downturn. But instead of reversing course and declaring he’d fight for every vote in every state, McCain let his fortunes be governed by the campaign strategists, making Palin’s words ring hollow. It demonstrated a weakness that the media will try to prove fatal for McCain.

McCain’s poll numbers have been on a mostly downward slide since early September. Yesterday’s Rasmussen tracking poll showed McCain lagging at 44% behind Obama’s 51%. Gallup’s daily showed the gap even larger, with McCain at 42% and Obama at 50%. But those polls probably exaggerate the real difference.

As the primaries showed, Obama “over-polls” in both pre-vote polling and exit polling. In Iowa, where people had to “vote” in public view by standing up at the caucuses, Obama did much better than in places where people were able to vote by secret ballot.

Let’s face it: there are people who will vote for or against Obama simply because he is black. A parallel is certainly true about Sarah Palin: some will vote for or against her because she is a woman. But because the Palin-Biden debate restored the vice presidential race to its usual status — nearly insignificant in the presidential choice — the McCain-Obama polls are the only ones with significance.

In Iowa, Obama won by eight points over John Edwards. But in the end-of-January Florida primary, Clinton beat Obama by seventeen points. And despite the large victories Obama had in intervening months, Clinton beat him again — by ten points — in the April Pennsylvania primary.

Today, in those same states, Obama is up by varying margins. In Florida, he’s only up by 3, in Pennsylvania by 6, but in Iowa by almost 10. More worrying is the fact that states such as Indiana and Virginia, usually safe for any Republican presidential candidate, are up for grabs.

McCain has to realize that Obama’s actual lead is almost certainly less in most of the states polled. McCain can win in the close states, and enough others to win the presidency, but only if he begins seizing his opportunities.

Tomorrow night’s “town hall” format debate is probably the biggest opportunity McCain will have to reverse his slide in the polls. The last debate — next week — is a time for closing arguments, not strategic reorientations. Tomorrow night, McCain needs to change lots of minds.

The temptation is for McCain to attack Obama relentlessly, but that cannot be McCain’s central theme.

The oldest cliché in politics is that you can’t beat something with nothing. McCain cannot be on the defensive: he needs to prove to voters that his positive vision for America is better, and more credible, than Obama’s.

In the vice presidential debate, Joe Biden fibbed outrageously by saying Obama didn’t say he’d meet with our enemies — even Iran — without preconditions. McCain should call Obama on it in the town hall debate, citing chapter and verse. But he has to say — precisely and forcefully — what he’d do instead.

Saying that he supported the surge in Iraq while both Obama and Biden opposed it is old news and will not change voters’ minds.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, commander of British forces in Afghanistan, said last weekend that the war there cannot be won. Why, Sen. McCain, is he wrong? How will you win it?

The same need for clarity and contrast is true on the economy, likely the most important issue this year. McCain can’t distinguish himself from Obama on the bailout bill, but he can hammer the fact that in the first debate — when asked what promises he’d have to cut back to pay for the bailout — Obama dodged: he only listed the huge expansion of government spending he plans.

McCain should blast Obama for “curing” spending with more spending. But McCain also must say, specifically and going far beyond cutting earmarks, how he will cut government spending and the burden of it each voter is forced to shoulder.

One column in this week’s "Economist" sums up McCain’s burden by saying, “Far from creating a hegemonic party, Mr. Bush leaves the Republicans in the worst state they have been in for decades; riven by divisions, confused about their identity and facing Armageddon at the ballot box.” All of which is true.

McCain’s campaign can’t rely on his tarnished “maverick” self-branding to win. It’s probably impossible for him to both revive the Republican brand and re-brand himself in four weeks. But he has to try to convince voters his positive vision for America is better than Obama’s tax and spend liberalism.

It’s probably his final opportunity, one he cannot afford to miss.


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