Which John McCain Will Be At Debate?

McCain Campaign knows by now that every time they use personal attacks against Obama they are losing voters, but it’s like they can’t help themselves. Mike Maddon’s view from Salon.com about which McCain will we see at the debate.

Yes, America, there is yet another new John McCain on the campaign trail now, after yet another campaign “reset” over the weekend (albeit one that didn’t involve any melodramatic suspensions). This one promises to fight, and he pounds the podium as he says, “Yes, we will,” a slogan that sounds strangely familiar. The new McCain, though, appears to have some of his supporters pining for the old version, the one who would bring up Bill Ayers and challenge his opponent’s character more directly, asking, conspiratorially, “Who is Barack Obama?”

You know, the McCain from last week.

A day before the final presidential debate of the year — and three weeks before Election Day — McCain’s campaign still seems to be struggling to figure out how to regain momentum in a race that, for him, has gone south faster than a retiree with a ticket to Florida. (That is, if the retiree still has any savings left to head south with.) McCain himself is sticking to a kindler, gentler stump speech that only impugns Obama’s policies, not his personality, and his rallies are more carefully controlled by the campaign — at least in part because polling found voters were starting to turn away from McCain, rather than Obama, because of McCain’s sharp tone.

Another reason McCain’s poll numbers are spiraling down is that, Independents and Moderate Republicans are repulsed also by McCain/Palin supporters. What their campaign has drawn to these hate-fests most Undecideds and Independents find contemptible. They are looking to hear answers and talk about the issues, but the conduct at these rallies has been a big turn-off to several blocks of voters.

It’s also not clear which tone McCain will try to take in the debate Wednesday night at Hofstra University. His promise to bring up Ayers — apparently because Obama goaded him into it — doesn’t bode well for a high-minded discussion of the economy, the stated topic for the final debate. McCain is cramming in far more prep time for these encounters than he ever did in the primaries (when aides actually stopped prepping ahead of time and switched to town hall meetings on debate days instead), which some supporters worry may not be helping him. The format of this debate, where both Obama and McCain will be seated at a table with the moderator, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, ought to make harsh attacks even more awkward than in the last two debates — he would be ripping the head off of a man with whom he’s supposed to be sitting and having a faux-civil conversation.

McCain, in fact, is particularly bad at the sitting-and-having-a-polite-chat thing. In January, at a Republican debate in California, he taunted and mocked Mitt Romney all night, sitting right next to him at a table in the Reagan Presidential Library; the spectacle was enough to make you feel bad for Romney, who isn’t the world’s most sympathetic figure. Obama’s advisors, looking ahead to the evening, don’t believe that McCain will be able to conceal his contempt for his opponent, and expect his reactions — while Obama and McCain are both in the same TV shot — to repel independent voters who dislike negativity.

The problem for McCain, of course, is that if he doesn’t swing for the fences, he will have lost what’s almost certainly his last, best chance to change the dynamic of the election. All Obama needs to do is maintain the steady performance he showed at the first two debates — even a tie, in an election where polls show Obama is on the verge of a national landslide, would help him. A good rule, for anyone scoring at home, might be this: If you find yourself bored while watching the debate, Obama is probably winning. But for McCain, a lot of fireworks, if he deploys them badly, might turn out to mean the same thing.

McCain has proved his agitation over these debates always comes out. When Obama nails him on the issues, that is when he starts to get mean and nasty. You can see it coming, his jaw starts to twitch and you can tell he is clenching his teeth. Visually you know he is angry. I would expect to see the same tonight yet again.

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