John McCain has a lot to accomplish Tuesday night in Nashville at the second of three presidential debates. If you listen to the pundits and strategists, in fact, it may well be impossible for the Republican nominee to achieve in just 90 minutes all that is expected of him.
McCain will arrive on the campus of Belmont University facing a grim reality. He is behind in the polls nationally and in almost every state whose electoral votes will determine the outcome of his contest with Democratic nominee Barack Obama. The roller-coaster ride that has been McCain's presidential campaign has come to rest in a very bad place, with a candidate who has been angry and sarcastic on the trail, a running mate who is best known for being late-night comedy fodder, a dearth of momentum and, worst of all, an economic crisis that has pulverized Republican prospects across the board.
McCain is a much better debate performer than is commonly acknowledged, but he would have to turn in his all-time best national performance to give his candidacy the kind of significant boost that it needs right now. And McCain's task has been made even more difficult by the sour, stumbling manner in which his campaign has operated in the past few days.
Ever since Obama secured his party's presidential nomination, it's been clear that a big part of any successful effort to beat him in the general election would have to involve defining him as unacceptable and unqualified to be Commander in Chief. Clearly, the Republicans have not done enough on that score to influence public opinion and slow Obama down, and McCain will need to use the vast audience tuning in to the final two debates to effectively paint Obama in those negative terms.
A few days ago, McCain's aides revealed perhaps unwisely an aggressive new game plan, in part to distract from the financial crisis that has been a political catastrophe for McCain. The attacks they have launched in the past three days focusing on Obama's controversial past statements and relationships have seemed utterly divorced from the daily concerns of Americans during these grimly chaotic economic times, as well as hasty, confusing and desperate.
Fully warned about the impending McCain attack strategy, moreover, it is a safe bet that Obama in the debate will turn his cheek away from McCain, all the while metaphorically punching him hard for going negative and charging that the Republican is paying insufficient attention to the economic crisis and other pressing real-world issues.
While it is imperative for McCain's campaign to define Obama on its own terms, McCain also has to build himself up, explain his ideas for the economy, remind voters what they like about him, display sincere optimism and flash some charm, which has been sorely lacking of late. Adding even more complexity, the format for this debate is a town hall, with most of the questions coming from voters in the auditorium, which could potentially limit McCain's ability to play rough when trying to score points against the Democrat.
Obama's task is easier: He must maintain the almost preternatural calm he regularly exhibits on the trail, respond to McCain's anger with feigned (or perhaps real) disappointment and offer firm answers that address voters' fundamental hopes and needs. Obama supporters probably do not need to worry much; since winning the nomination in June, the Democratic candidate has rarely strayed from his unflappable, steady style.
McCain is by no means out of the game yet. Since it is the eve of the World Series, let's use a baseball analogy: McCain is down eight runs, but it is the seventh inning, not the ninth. He needs to whittle away at Obama's lead in Nashville to put himself within striking distance, not strain for a tie with a wild swing for the fence.