McCain's Dwindling Options

Washington Matters

McCain's Dwindling Options

Without suggesting the race is over -- pure folly when a month is left in the most unpredictable presidential campaign in memory -- it is difficult to overstate the trouble facing John McCain.

Barack Obama has opened up a solid lead in most major national polls -- and the leader in early October most often goes on to win in November. He also has taken a lead or closed the gap in the battleground states, creating a smaller and smaller electoral playing field for McCain. The economy has become the dominant issue in the campaign in a way that no one could have imagined even a couple of weeks ago, and it's clearly going to remain dominant from here on out. That is an important favorable element in a political landscape that already favors Democrats.

So, what can McCain do?

Keep his fingers and toes crossed. At this point, it is going to take a screw-up by Obama or an unforeseen event, such as a national security crisis, that changes public perception of the race, the country or the candidates. That doesn't mean McCain and running mate Sarah Palin simply give up. But looking at the remaining month of the campaign realistically can help the campaign focus on its strengths and be prepared to exploit even the smallest opening provided by Obama or circumstances.

Go negative I. Since 1988, the most the reliable page from the GOP's playbook has been personal attacks that undermine public confidence in the opponent. This is where the McCain camp appears headed. Palin tested the waters on Saturday by using the tactic of guilt by association to try to portray Obama as a merciless critic of America and American values by raising again Obama's relationship to onetime Weatherunderground cofounder and radical Bill Ayers. This is probably a lousy idea because there's a very good chance it will backfire. First, the move is likely to appear desperate. Second, McCain has consistently portrayed himself as the candidate who can change the tone of politics, so resorting to that tone undercuts one of the most appealing aspects of his candidacy. Third, bringing up old charges such as Ayers, Obama's ties to a corrupt real estate magnate and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (can he be far behind?) in the middle of an economic crisis is problematic at best. Can charges like that really gain traction when voters are so worried about their personal security and the direction of the country?

Go Negative II. Focus less on personal character and more on political character and experience. This is the tactic that Obama and Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden are using for their attacks, with some success. The Obama campaign is trying to capitalize on the notion that McCain can be impulsive and reactive, pointing to his call to suspend his campaign and postpone the first debate during the talks over a financial rescue package -- only to show up even though the package was not complete. And fairly or not, Obama and Biden are portraying McCain's health reform plan as radical and unworkable. McCain can't just answer their attacks (like he is doing by defending his health care plan) but must focus on Obama's abilities and proposals for solving national problems. But he has to be far more specific than he has been to date and break some new ground. Just pointing to Obama's lack of experience didn't work for Hillary Clinton and it's not working for McCain.

Go Positive. McCain's biggest problem right now is that Obama has made people feel better about his leadership abilities while McCain's image as a cool and determined leader has suffered some. The economic crisis has allowed Obama to focus on the things that most worry voters. McCain has to redefine himself -- offer himself as someone who won't just shake things up (what a maverick does) but can put them back together again. The American public is rattled.

Whoever comes across as the most reassuring and soothing -- and determined but not overconfident to the point of false bravado -- will have a huge advantage. Right now, polls indicate that person is Obama. McCain and Palin face the difficult task of changing voters' minds -- and they'll have more success trying to do that through persuasion and conversation rather than scare tactics that are bound to make them appear overtly partisan and bordering on desperate.