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McCain's Gambles Not Paying Off

Bob Beckel

Tue Sep 30, 1:30 PM ET

In less than a month now McCain has rolled the political dice twice to change the campaign's dynamics and twice he has damaged himself. McCain has managed to diminish his advantage on experience by his ham handed attempts to get credit on an economic consensus and failed. And by picking Sarah Palin as his running mate, McCain made a run at the Obama dominated "change" vote which is backfiring with each (rare) interview Palin gives and each revelation about her Alaska record emerges.

Prior to the Wall Street meltdown and in the weeks leading up to the Republican Convention the McCain campaign had been on the offensive. From the beginning of the general election McCain's strategy has been to maximize his experience in foreign policy and national security and simultaneously maximize Obama's weakness in both. Obama's trip this summer to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Europe was intended to deal with those perceptions.

The trip was by every measure a success. He made no blunders. Obama received some support for his Iraqi troop withdrawal plan from Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, and after McCain had maligned Obama's proposal for direct talks with Iran the Bush Administration announced the opening of dialogue with Tehran. Obama's trip appeared to bolster his international image.

But the McCain campaign seized on Obama's stop in Germany where 200,000 Germans gave him a raucous welcome by running ads comparing the reception to the equivalent of a Britney Spears/Paris Hilton celebrity tour. In the process the McCain campaign diminished what had been a successful trip, applauded by the main stream media, and turned it (in part at least) into a shallow idolatry tour in the eyes of many main street voters who still have serious questions about Obama.

After undercutting Obama's trip, McCain made a bold but fateful decision to challenge Obama's strength (and McCain's weakness) as the candidate of change. In a year thought by many to give the Democratic candidate a lock on change McCain decided to use his convention and vice presidential choice to challenge Obama for the change vote. McCain, like Hillary Clinton before him, must have concluded that experience, though important, would not be enough to win in a powerful change year like 2008.

The McCain campaign used their convention as a platform for dusting off McCain's (somewhat justified) claim as a maverick. But it was McCain's last minute choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate that underscored the seriousness of McCain's challenge for at least a share of the change vote.

Palin at first seemed the ideal candidate. She was a blank slate which allowed the McCain campaign to cast Palin as a fellow maverick with a history of agitating the Alaskan GOP establishment. She also brought to the ticket a personal history which excited and mobilized a less than enthusiastic Republican base.

For a while it worked. The GOP Convention appeared to produce a maverick twin ticket. For several weeks amateur analysts and those reporters who fell for meaningless post convention polls rushed to write stories about McCain's success at outflanking Obama. But relentless press questioning of both McCain's and Palin's "maverick" claims and massive economic uncertainties triggered by the Wall Street meltdown combined to undermine the McCain/Palin's bid for the change vote.

In retrospect the only real chance McCain had to challenge for the change vote was to bring the McCain of 2000 to the fight. The McCain who had challenged his party's antiquated immigration policies; the McCain who opposed the Bush tax cuts; the McCain who challenged right wing preachers as "agents of intolerance"; and the McCain who actually believed in global warming.

Instead it was the 2008 McCain model that came to the battle. The McCain who flipped and supported the Bush tax plan (adding corporate cuts), the McCain who now embraced the right wing clergy, and whose vice presidential choice blamed sunspots for global warming.

But it was bringing Sarah Palin - an unvetted, untested, ill prepared self described maverick - to fight with him that is proving to be McCain's greatest liability. From her discredited anti-earmark claims to putting an elementary school pal in charge of state agriculture because as a child she "loved cows", Palin has become a liability for McCain.

Going after Obama over change may have been born of necessity - but it has come at a cost. McCain's assumption about the public's desire for change, based on the Obama/Clinton battle, was a terrible miscalculation. The desire for change, so apparent among Democratic primary voters, is not as powerful with general election voters. While most voters want change they also put a big premium on experience in a president. And it is experience that has carried McCain this far.

But his experience is the very asset McCain diminished in his battle with Obama over change and his intervention in Wall Street mess. With the carnage on Wall Street making the Bush economy the most important issue, McCain's change message becomes even tougher to sell. McCain's only argument is that in times of economic turmoil the country needs a seasoned, experienced president not some fire breathing populist. But it has been Obama who has appeared calm while McCain has become a modern day William Jennings Bryan.

This suggests that McCain should now abandon the competition for change with Obama and fall back on his experience message. But McCain can't abandon his vice presidential choice. Palin has already undercut McCain's advantage on national security and foreign policy. But with the economy dominant McCain suffers from the perception that his actions over the last month seem at best intemperate, and with Palin at his side the ticket has a Laurel and Hardy feel to it.

Events may still turn to McCain's advantage and Obama could implode in the last two debates, though neither appears likely. What is certain is by selecting Sarah Palin to challenge Obama's claim to change and by intervening in the bailout negotiations, McCain took huge gambles. With each passing day it appears that selling McCain/Palin as agents of change or maximizing McCain's experience advantage may not only be a bridge to nowhere but increasingly looks like a bridge too far.

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