"The fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me." - Barack Obama responding to John McCain's comments about William Ayers
It seems the Lee Atwater-Karl Rove playbook has no new chapter on how to handle a campaign when the Republican candidate is tanking in the race. Despite polling that indicates a majority of Americans are not responding as the McCain campaign would wish to negative attacks on Obama, McCain figured his strongest hand in tonight's Presidential debate was playing more of the same failed strategy.
Somehow it's appropriate - why should he change despite evidence that what he's been doing hasn't worked? McCain represents more of the same after eight years of alleged conservative rule by the GOP, and Americans know it no matter how hard the Arizona senator tries to run away from George W. Bush. He projected touching empathy about the economic plight of many Americans in one of his responses, but for most of the night it was attack, attack, attack.
It's sad that a war hero and former leader of the "Straight Talk Express" wants to have these final days as his electoral legacy. While both have the burning ambition to be President, it's McCain that sold his soul to get his party's nomination. The man who called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance" and said that "Sooner or later people are going to figure out that if all you run is negative attack ads you don't have much of a vision for the future, or you're not ready to articulate it" is long gone.
Bob Schieffer decided to be less a moderator and more a fight instigator, which I think was unnecessary and more about trying to produce soundbites than reveal anything worthwhile to the public. Of course, Obama had called out McCain over Ayers recently, and I believe he was hoping to goad McCain into looking like a slightly unhinged snapping turtle. If so Obama got his wish.
McCain was clumsy in his attacks, including ACORN, with which he has also had dealings. The group is "on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy," McCain said. But what is that fraud and how is Obama specifically tied into this supposed great fraud? McCain didn't say. It was a poorly delivered attack that won't mean much to non-political junkies.
Then there were other low-lights, such as McCain referring to pro-choice stances as "pro-abortion." When you're trying to get more than right-wingers to vote for you, that language isn't much help. And pretending you don't have a judicial litmus test over Roe vs. Wade while saying that a jurist would essentially be unqualified for the Supreme Court if he or she approved of that decision is an obvious contradiction.
McCain snapped, snorted, rolled his eyes and interrupted Obama at various points tonight. McCain's handlers have done a poor job of reminding their boss that his body language matters in a televised debate and for third time he failed on that count.
Obama was smart to essentially pass on pillorying Sarah Palin, who's done a good enough job of that on her own. And he basically kept his cool during this debate as he did during the previous two.
Bottom line: this debate did not move the needle to McCain, no matter how much he and his supporters will try to spin it. As so many have already said, it's going to take an outside event of mammoth proportions to change this race. The tired Republican attack machine - personified by the sad, angry figure of McCain tonight - will not determine the outcome.
UPDATE: Snap polls by CNN and CBS say Obama made it three-for-three with another debate victory tonight. Whether he did or not, McCain certainly didn't get what he needed out of this final get-together.