Feature

McCain’s search for a winning strategy

The McCain campaign tried to cut into Barack Obama's lead by stepping up its attacks on Obama’s character on the stump, in TV ads, and through speeches by running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

John McCain sought to reverse Barack Obama’s growing momentum in the polls by going on the offense this week, portraying the Democrat as  “dangerous,” unfit for the presidency, and concealing ties to a “domestic terrorist.” In a town hall debate in Nashville, McCain aggressively questioned Obama’s credentials and judgment on economic and foreign policy issues. “He wants to raise taxes,” McCain said. “My friends, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover.” The Republican unveiled a $300 billion plan in which the Treasury would buy up bad mortgage debt from homeowners, and refinance the mortgages under more favorable rates. Obama said the $700 billion federal bailout already provided for such refinancing. In response to McCain’s charges, he said he’d raise taxes only on those making more than $250,000 a year, and faulted McCain for supporting an era of Republican deregulation that had let the markets “run wild.” 

Before the debate, Obama had opened up a lead of from five to nine points in national polls, with growing advantages in such key battleground states as Pennsylvania and Ohio. The McCain campaign tried to cut into that lead by stepping up its attacks on Obama’s character on the stump, in TV ads, and through speeches by running mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. One McCain ad called Obama “dangerous” and “too risky for America,” while Palin repeatedly accused Obama of “palling around” with “a former domestic terrorist”—a reference to former ’60s radical William Ayers, who served with Obama on the boards of nonprofit groups in Chicago. 

What the editorials saidThe debate’s “forced cordiality” couldn’t “erase the dismal ugliness” of McCain’s campaign, said The New York Times. McCain and Palin have ventured “into the dark territory of race-baiting and xenophobia” in their efforts to shift attention from the financial crisis and paint a fearful portrait of Obama. At a Florida rally, Palin’s “demagoguery” linking Obama to terrorism elicited a shout of  “kill him” while some in the crowd “shouted epithets at an African-American member of a TV crew.” At another rally, a McCain supporter loudly called Obama a “traitor.’’ Surely, McCain has more to offer than inciting “division, anger, and hatred.”

This dull debate could have used some incitement, said the New York Post. Obama and McCain “offered multiple chickens for every pot” instead of honest debate or tough choices. When the topic turned to Pakistan, Iraq, and national security, however, their differences came into sharp focus. “McCain showed a well-honed understanding of the subtleties of power projection” while “Obama again seemed out of his depth.” Mostly though, it was a wash. 

What the columnists said “Every time the Dow plunges, John McCain’s political fortunes plunge with it,” said Roger Simon at Politico.com. With the economy “near free-fall,” it’s tough for McCain to argue that Republicans are “better stewards of the economy than Democrats.” Obama didn’t land any knockout punches. But it’s McCain who “needed one.”

Bringing up Ayers in a town hall debate, said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post, would have been “like having a knife fight at a PTA meeting.” But he achieved two main objectives: He was “tough but not nasty,” criticizing the mandates, fines, and taxes Obama would impose on small business. And his proposal to buy up bad mortgages is a “hopeful” plan with broad appeal. 

By simply looking like a mainstream Democrat, Obama won this debate, said John Dickerson in Slate.com. After McCain’s campaign made him out to be a scary radical, the Obama who appeared on Americans’ TV screens was poised and reassuring as he promised to protect health-care benefits and jobs, and vowed to “kill Bin Laden” and “crush al-Qaida.” Some detected a bit of contempt when McCain referred to Obama as “that one.” But unless he finds some magic quickly, McCain soon will be calling Obama “Mr. President.”

What next?As stock markets continued a dramatic fall this week, the McCain campaign may be rethinking its strategy, said Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith in Politico.com. After the debate, aides said there would be less talk about Bill Ayers and more emphasis on convincing voters that McCain was the better captain to guide the nation through the worsening economic storm. “We need to move the race five or six points in 28 days,” said McCain advisor Charlie Black.

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