McCain's Last Chance

Tonight's debate is do-or-die for John McCain

NASHVILLE - It’s do-or-die for Sen. John McCain, but he is used to that.

The guy’s been left for dead — literally, in one case, and politically in many others — more times than a pack of General Custers.

So it is ironic but appropriate that his pivotal campaign moment tonight is in a city known for country-music troubadours of last chances.

A week is a year and a month a lifetime in politics. It is an interactive universe; straight-line extrapolations are worse than useless. Still, the clock is winding down on McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin in their race to catch senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

Tonight’s town hall debate at Belmont University, moderated by NBC’s Tom Brokaw, is McCain’s last real opportunity to alter the dynamic of the race. The cliché is “game changer,” but that is what he needs. There is one more debate on Oct. 15, in New York, but that is almost certainly too late to have much impact.

Can McCain turn things around tonight and, if so, how can he do it?

The answer to the first question, given his history, has to be yes.

McCain is like that trick birthday candle: you keep blowing it out but it keeps springing back to life.

I think I know the reason why this is so. There is something about what McCain represents — a soldier willing to die for his country.

Voters are understandably reluctant to be seen as rejecting that ideal, or treating it with disrespect, especially in the eyes of a doubting world.

Obama is another reason why McCain cannot be counted out, no matter what the tracking polls and Electoral College summaries are saying. There remains something about the senator from Illinois — the big-city, Ivy League, I-know-what’s-good-for-you smoothie — that makes many swing voters reluctant to accept him, even if you edit race out of the equation, which of course, you cannot.

So McCain will have his chance, but how will he try to exploit it? He will do so by launching an all-out, frontal, personal assault on Obama — his character, his record and his life story.

McCain and his aides have essentially abandoned the idea of spending their limited time and money on building his brand: the brand of military patriotism, heroic sacrifice and honest self-criticism in the name of purifying the wrongs of the nation’s capital.

Instead of selling that honorable history, they are going to spend most of the rest of the campaign (and their comparatively limited cash) raising fears about Obama — about his past associations, his personal character, his record on campaign promises, and his willingness to use the federal government to address social problems facing the country.

McCain has now called Obama a bald-faced liar. His running mate has accused Obama of “hanging out” with terrorist radicals. McCain has said that Obama has an ill-disguised hunger to raise taxes, and a habit — even a need — to make promises he has no intention of keeping.

In Albuquerque, McCain road tested the attack rhetoric he will use here tonight. In the last debate, he barely looked at Obama. I have a feeling that McCain will be starting at his foe tonight.

But McCain had better be careful. This will be a “town hall” audience, and their questions and reactions may penalize anyone who is too harsh. McCain has to watch out for an Obama move to seek sympathy and support from the studio audience of regular folks.

We’ll know by their reaction whether McCain is making any headway or not.

But by going on the attack McCain risks allowing people to forget what it is about him that they liked so much to begin with, his non-partisan membership in the American military tradition.

One of the locals wondering aloud about that is Nashville songwriter Chuck Cannon, who wrote a big hit after 9/11 for Toby Keith called “American Soldier.” A shrewd fellow who served as president of the Nashville Songwriters Association, Cannon told me he admires McCain’s story and doubts whether the attack strategy will work.

“We respect the soldier, especially the one who nearly lost his life as a prisoner of war,” Cannon told me. “That is powerful, and what he ought to be talking about.”

Cannon remains undecided.

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