McCain seeks to shift race’s focus

Tuesday’s debate is a chance to regain campaign momentum.

LM Otero/AP
Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama talk with moderator Jim Lehrer following their debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., Sept. 26, 2008. McCain is hoping for a strong performance in Tuesday's debate. Obama has taken a lead in US polls and with independents.

With Barack Obama continuing to consolidate his lead in the polls, John McCain needs a game-changer.

He’s counting on two things to bring that about: an aggressive advertising attack on the Illinois senator and a great performance in Tuesday’s town-hall-style debate in Nashville, Tenn.

The goal is to shift attention away from America’s economic crisis and again raise questions about the Democrat’s readiness to lead as well as his associations in the past.

The opening salvo came over the weekend when Senator McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, attacked Senator Obama for “palling around with terrorists” because of a past association with William Ayers, a Chicago education professor. In the 1960s, Mr. Ayers was a member of the Weather Underground, which claimed responsibility for several bombing attacks.

The Obama camp called the comment “desperate, false, and offensive,” and it noted that the two men did know each other but that Obama has always condemned Ayers’s “detestable acts.”

The Democrats also say that McCain is simply trying to divert attention from the economic crisis, which has helped Obama take a lead in national polls as well as among independents and in some vital swing states that Republicans won in 2004.
“Obama has to keep the pressure on linking McCain to Bush on the economy, because that’s a twofer: It’s what’s driving his current lead and tipping the tossup states into his column,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “McCain has a much tougher job: He has to try to find a way to change the direction of the election in the remaining two debates. That’s very hard to do with words when the daily headlines scream ‘economic disaster.’ ”

This week, the McCain camp plans to run a series of advertisements that tie Obama not only to Ayers, but also to Antoin “Tony” Rezko, a Chicago financier and longtime Obama supporter who was convicted of money laundering earlier this year. He is scheduled to be sentenced a week before the election.

“McCain’s goal is to cause people to say, ‘No-bama,’ to reject Obama because that’s his only shot,” says Professor Sabato. “People are only going to go back to McCain if he’s the default candidate, if they’ve already rejected the ‘big change’ candidate.”

The Obama campaign is also staying on the offensive. On Sunday morning, it released an ad that accused McCain of being “erratic in a crisis” and “out of touch” by trying to “turn a page” on the economic crisis. It also called McCain’s attacks on Obama’s past associations “dishonorable, dishonest assaults.”

The Democrats also continued to hammer away at McCain’s healthcare proposal, which calls for health insurance tax credits of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families. The Republicans would pay for it by taxing the health benefits that individuals now receive from their employers. Obama’s camp notes that it is the first time that health benefits would be taxed and calls the plan “radical change.”

“What Senator McCain is proposing is really dangerous for the American public because ... not only would he tax health benefits for the first time in history, but more seriously he would dismantle state-based regulation and tie the hands of those folks who are involved in consumer protection,” Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) Kansas, an Obama supporter, said in a conference call with reporters Sunday.

The McCain campaign acknowledges that it would tax currently exempt health benefits as personal income. But it argues that giving a tax credit would equalize a system that currently favors employees who get healthcare benefits over individuals who have to buy them on their own. McCain’s senior economic policy adviser, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, also insisted that it would not undermine state regulations and called the Obama campaign’s ads on the issue “cynical and deceitful.”

“They are saying that it’s a big tax increase, and that is also false,” said Mr. Holtz-Eakin in a conference call with reporters Saturday. “If you are receiving from your employer the health insurance that Barack Obama has decided everyone should have, you will have more money left over for healthcare than you do right now.”

The two candidates are now preparing for Tuesday’s debate – McCain at his Arizona ranch and Obama in North Carolina, a once reliably Republican state that Democrats are hoping to turn in their favor. Last week, McCain assured a voter he would “get tough” using Tuesday’s debate to aggressively go after Obama. His campaign has done nothing to play down expectations, as often happens in predebate skirmishes. Part of the reason is that the debate is town-hall-style, where voters ask the questions. It’s a format McCain excels in.

“John McCain is very good at relating to people and expressing his views. If there’s ever a format that would favor him, it’s the town-hall meeting,” says Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

But Mr. West and other analysts caution that McCain has to find a way to shift the debate toward foreign policy and away from the economy, which remains on most voters’ minds despite passage of the bailout package on Friday. “As long as the debate focuses on the domestic economy, he’s playing on Obama’s home court,” West says.

McCain also has to be careful to contain his well-known temper on Tuesday. As his campaign has struggled with questions about Governor Palin’s experience and McCain’s negative-ad strategy, he has on occasion been “sarcastic and irascible,” as The Des Moines Register in Iowa reported about a recent editorial-board meeting with the Arizona senator.

“In this one, the town-hall format, you have to be polite and warm to the audience and respectful to your opponent,” says Allan Louden, a debate expert at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. “That’s going to make it hard for McCain to switch the game in this debate. People also judge candidates by how they treat each other.”

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