To get a sense of what John McCain is going through on the eve of the last presidential debate with 20 days before Election Day and Barack Obama leading in the polls, I decided to put some pressure on myself: I delayed working on this story until 45 minutes before my deadline. To approximate the string of people in McCain's ear offering advice, I turned on Fox News and Rush Limbaugh. Be the happy warrior! Attack! Talk about Ayers! Don't mention Ayers! Fire your campaign staff! ACORN! I then put Wagner on my iTunes.
I'm finding it very hard to concentrate. If we're all lucky, I may just give up and end this piece right here.
He doesn't. He goes on to write 1024 words. In 45 minutes. And it's not some nonsense stream-of-consciousness thing, it's solid analysis. I'm glad Dickerson did it, because I'd sure hate to. I'm also sure the post would suck -- "John McCain have to do good in debate tonight... Probably do bad. Poor John McCain." Then I'd read it back, realize it was way too short and add "Poor, poor, poor, poor John McCain," like a kid padding his word count in an essay. As it is, I'll take it easy and, apparently retarded by comparison, struggle with sentence structure and that one guy's name... What the hell is that one guy's name? Praise the Google. It's been my salvation more than once. In my defense, I type out all my HTML -- all that <a href="http://somelink.com" target="_BLANK"> stuff? All me.
Dickerson's bit of journalistic flash is pretty straight forward; going into tonight's debate, John McCain is pretty screwed. He titles his piece "McCain's Mission? Impossible." They aren't passing it around at McCain HQ today. He writes that "Wednesday's debate comes with a degree of difficulty perhaps beyond the capacity of human achievement" for McCain. Do or die tonight and probably die.
As always, being the frontrunner, Obama has the most to lose. But Obama's cautious performances in past debates gives McCain very little hope of a flub. Obama has been playing a nearly perfect defense, merely aiming for "no change" -- which forces McCain to do all the reaching. It's been a strategy that McCain has been playing right into.
And, if McCain felt the need to strain himself in previous debates, that need has to be felt more sharply now. A CBS News/New York Times poll out last night puts John McCain 14 points in the hole nationally. McCain's widely seen as being a negative campaigner, as "Sixty-one percent of those surveyed say McCain is spending more time attacking his opponent than explaining what he would do as president." 27% say the same about Obama. McCain's negative campaigning isn't making a dent, since only 9% are bothered by Obama's connection to Bill Ayers and 11% by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. You've got to believe there's some crossover there, with many of the same people freaked out about Wright equally freaked out about Ayers.
McCain, in what seems a response to being called a chicken, has promised to bring up Ayers tonight. Considering what the polling says, it's hard to see how that will help any. And, having already made this promise -- no doubt aimed straight at his remaining supporters -- he's just as screwed if he doesn't. He seems to have a limitless supply of paint with which he can paint himself into corners. He does this all the time. In fact, McCain would suffer more in the guilt by association game. While Obama has a weak connection to William Ayers -- someone most have never even heard of -- McCain has hired a lobbyist who used to represent Saddam Hussein. People know who Saddam was.
Meanwhile, look for the unflappable Barack Obama to remain unflappable. "Advisers say that as the debate nears," reports CNN, "Obama gets a sense of calm, turns off his cell phone three hours ahead of time and just focuses." If you're having a hard time picturing Obama getting calmer, welcome to the club. He's like the Buddha or something. The guy seems to live in the zone.
McCain has to do one thing. And it's one thing I don't think he can do. He needs to show that he's not all about being the guy who's not Barack Obama. Polling shows that the majority aren't looking for an alternative; Barack Obama will suit them just fine. I always say that people vote against things, not for things, but you have to give some reason why people should vote for you. You really need to make some sort of case for your own candidacy. What McCain needs to do is show that he's got both a solid grasp of economic issues and a real plan to deal with them. What he's doing now is giving voters a chance to vote against his negative campaign.
If I had to predict the headlines about the debate tomorrow, I think we'd have to go with "Three to Nothing, Obama." Four, if you count the veepee debate. I'm trying to come up with some way McCain can pull this thing out of a tailspin, without reinventing himself one more time. For the life of me, I can't do it. And if he recreates himself once again, that will only reinforce his already well-cemented rep for inconsistency.
Well, I guess I better wrap it up. 944 words in I'm not telling you how long.
You suck, John Dickerson. Showoff...