Will the real John McCain please stand up?
Tonight is McCain’s last chance to save his candidacy. The polls are dreadful and the Republican National Committee seems to be in a money-pulling mood lately, potentially abandoning McCain offensive targets in favor of reinforcing traditionally red states. If he’s going to turn this around, he has to do it tonight.
What can he do? There’s a good argument to be made for ‘nothing’; the polls are too far gone, and his campaign still seems to be operating without a strategy, pursuing strange targets of opportunity in place of an all-out offensive in Pennsylvania and defensive in Ohio and Florida.
The problem he has to overcome is that whether he’s lost his brand or branded himself successfully as the Experience candidate (albeit in a Change year), whether he has a brilliant hidden strategy or no strategy at all, the voters have seen John McCain, and they don’t much like him. He has to turn this around with something dramatic. Pledging only to serve one term or vowing to put Dems in his cabinet won’t do it (although either would help).
The only way he can change the course of his candidacy is to do a radical re-brand tonight by being a different John McCain, one that voters will like. He must throw his own campaign (including himself) under the bus, apologizing for the negative tone and the focus on small things (borrowing Obama’s language if he must). He can then go to work on George W. Bush, abusing his presidency volubly before moving on to how he would make things different.
He can and must be in praise of Obama tonight. The principal difference between them, McCain must argue, is that desperate times call for a steady hand. Obama can be a great president one day, and perhaps he, McCain, might even endorse him, but these dark times call for proven leadership to deliver the change we need (moving the McCain candidacy into that rarest of things - Experience and Change simultaneously). This can be combined with the bipartisan cabinet and so on, but the core message is simple: Obama may be right for the future, but the country needs me today.
What McCain must not do is use this debate as a vehicle to attack Obama. Negative campaigning is widely derided but can in fact be quite effective, but only when the attacker is protecting a lead; in such circumstances, all you have to do is persuade a certain portion of the population not to like your opponent. When you are behind, however, you have to actually change the minds of voters from liking the front-runner to liking you. Being nasty does not accomplish this.
McCain does not have a lead. He must persuade voters to change their minds. His plan, apparently, is to do this by attacking Obama tonight, by being the same McCain voters have already seen, only even nastier. If so, the McCain candidacy is about to die by its own hand.