Matt Rooney | September 20, 2008


Senator John McCain needed a perfect week to defend his post-Palin/convention bounce. Instead, fate handed the Republican-hopeful a week straight from hell. With the Iraq War waning and gas prices driving inflation, Americans’ economic fears were already elevated and vulnerable to media-induced exacerbation.

Now we’re frustratingly right back to where we were before the Democrat Convention. Senator Obama didn’t recapture a slight lead in this contest by offering a superior plan (“change” as a policy can’t be qualified) or demonstrating a superior command of the issues (“hope” as a commodity can’t be quantified). Rather, Obama’s campaign did the smart thing- step aside, keep quiet, and let the American people focus their angst on everyone’s favorite whipping-boy George W. Bush.

All is not lost. Obama’s lead remains small and the pool of undecideds remains large precisely because his empty rhetoric will never seal the deal. Americans lean toward a new party in the White House after eight years of Republican control, but Obama’s continued weak performance leaves the door ajar for John McCain to win the field.

The problem for McCain is that he’s running out of time. The conventions are over, the vice presidential nominees are vetted and 85% of the country is not changing their minds. The debates loom as his final opportunity to change the fundamental dynamics of Election 2008, and the first debate is usually the most-watched and media-hyped.

**Here’s four things John McCain can easily do to retake the lead:

  1. Be funny.**

This is the most important key for success in the first debate. The topic is “Foreign Policy,” which if polling is any indication shouldn’t present a real problem for McCain. The true obstacle is that expectations for Obama are pretty low. Illinois’s Junior Senator only needs to come across as, for lack of a more eloquent conceptualization, “not-stupid,” in order to succeed. So how does McCain distinguish himself? Make them laugh, Mr. McCain!

Former Senator Bob Dole is a very likable and entertaining man who allowed himself to be painted as a cold, cranky, Nerf-ball shredding “Mr. Wilson” in 1996. John McCain can avoid a similar fate by presenting himself as a warm yet energetic grandfather figure. You know the type- the kind of grandpa that will lay down the law but sneak you fireworks on the 4th of July? Tell an appropriate joke. Throw some inflection in your voice. Be self-deprecating. And please, if nothing else, don’t begin every sentence with “my friends.” Remember that in a close race like 2008, victory often goes to the candidate voters find superiorly personally appealing.

No one seriously doubts McCain’s superior experience and credentials- Americans know he’s good enough to lead them. Now they want to find out if they like him.*2. Talk About the Economy.*

Election 2008 isn’t about Iraq anymore. Republicans won that issue thanks to the surge. McCain obviously needs to drive home that fact, but he also needs to do some work on an issue he’s losing- the economy.

Presidential debates are kind of like an essay test. You have to answer the question asked to pass, but you can earn extra-credit by working in what you know and playing to your strengths. To that end, John McCain needs to tie the subjects of economics and foreign policy together. For example, he should talk about how more drilling and energy independence are the best ways to avoid future entanglements in the Middle East.

3. Attack Obama.

Repeating the “inexperience” charge isn’t going to be enough. If McCain hopes to do some real damage to the Obama brand, he needs to articulate the real defects with Obama’s positions and contrast those shortcomings with his own laudable record. The winning comparison isn’t “experience vs. no experience.” In a “change” election, Americans place greater weight on authenticity. McCain needs to make the debate about a contrast between Obama’s bad ideas and McCain’s consistent and courageous positions. He needs to openly ridicule Obama’s desire to have tea with Iranian leaders, slash military spending and continue our energy dependence on terrorist states. Throw in the fact that he speaks out of both sides of his mouth regarding troop withdraws just for good measure.

The key here is “security.” This race is only close because American’s don’t yet trust Obama. McCain can’t let Obama look like a Commander-in-Chief. McCain needs to show everyone that the community organizer has no clothes.

4. Attack Biden.

This is a bonus objective. McCain should take the opportunity to soften-up Biden in advance of his debate with Sarah Palin. Bringing up Biden’s fierce opposition to the surge, in addition to any number of other times the self-proclaimed foreign policy guru has been wrong, would do the trick.


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