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The Low-Road Warrior

Many of McCain’s advisers from 2000, such as John Weaver and Mike Murphy, express qualms about the campaign’s newly nasty tone. (One can only imagine the sigh of relief emanating from Mark McKinnon, the heralded adman who helped McCain win the nomination but whose aversion to taking a cleaver to Obama caused him to sit out the general.) “In this kind of year—a change election, with big issues at stake—that sort of campaign is not gonna be in a voice the American people can understand,” Weaver tells me. “And at some point, John will need the goodwill that he spent years achieving.” And you think he’s in danger of losing that? “This is not a cost-free exercise,” he says.

But Weaver, Murphy, and McKinnon are no longer guiding McCain. Instead, the motor behind his operation now is Steve Schmidt, the shaven-headed strategist who earned his bones running Karl Rove’s war room in 2004, Frenchifying and de-war-heroizing John Kerry. What Schmidt and his associates have apparently concluded is that McCain’s weaknesses—on the election’s most salient issues and as a candidate—are so pronounced and Obama’s vulnerabilities so glaring that the low road is their guy’s best, and maybe only, route to the White House. They’ve concluded, in other words, that even if McCain may not be able to win the election in any affirmative sense, he might still wind up behind the big desk if he and his people can strip the bark off Obama with sufficiently vicious force.

If this sounds like an admission of a certain kind of defeat, that’s because it is. But in the prevailing political circumstances—the hunger for change in the electorate, the abject bankruptcy of the Republican brand, McCain’s positions on the wrong side of the public on the war and the economy, his age, and his pitiful performance skills—it may reflect a cold-eyed realism that’s an asset in any campaign. Moreover, at least in the short term, it actually seems to be working. Measured against the generic Democratic ballot, Obama continues to underperform dramatically. And since shifting to a more harshly negative posture, McCain has gained ground on Obama in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to recent Quinnipiac swing-state polls.

All of which, naturally, has more than a few Democrats in a state of mortal dread, although they tend not to be the types with GOT HOPE? bumper stickers on their Volvos. Making them all the more queasy is what they regard as Obama’s tepid and too-placid responses to the most scurrilous of McCain’s j’accuses. “Obama says he’s ‘disappointed’ in McCain when he charges him with near treason, patronizing him, as if he’s got a twenty-point lead with a week to go,” says one tough-minded organizer on the left. “It’s shades of Swift Boat.”

To be fair, by the end of last week Obama didn’t sound excessively serene. He had toughened his rhetoric, and so had his campaign. But even then, they were playing defense, fighting the battle on the turf defined by Team McCain. Obama’s calling out of the racial component of his opponent’s attacks, though justified, opened the door to the McCain countercharge that it’s he who is slapping down the race card—a claim that, however ludicrous, puts Obama in the position of denying, in effect, that he’s a smoother, calmer, version of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and his former pastor, Wright. What’s more, there’s reason to worry that the Democrat, as Jonathan Chait contended recently in the Los Angeles Times, is “making the enormous mistake of letting the race be entirely about him, which is the only way he can lose.”

The alternative, of course, is to get on offense, to batter McCain for his gaffes and incoherence, hammer him for his flip-flops, highlight how his maverick status is a thing of the past, and turn him into a combination of Bush and Grandpa Simpson. God knows there are those in Chicago champing at the bit to do just that—not least, one imagines, Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, who can wield the cudgel of negative ads with as much vigor and glee as any Republican. Yet Obama seems reluctant to go there. Tough pol though he is, he’s a conciliator and not a confrontationalist at heart; he seems to believe that once undecided voters know him better, he will have them eating, along with so many others, out of the palm of his hand.

And who knows, even if Obama stays above the fray, he might still pull this thing off. Because as unwilling as he is to get down and dirty, McCain may simply be unable to drive a consistent negative message. “John is uncomfortable doing this stuff,” says Weaver. “And it isn’t in his skill-set. It’s like adopting the West Coast offense and making Dick Butkus your quarterback.” Butkus, it should be noted, was a linebacker—which actually makes the metaphor more apt. Obama may hesitate to call the right plays, but he knows the difference between offense and defense, and is unlikely to wind up sprinting into his own end zone.