Conservatives question McCain's attack strategy

Jake Turcotte

With a month to go and the poll numbers down, the McCain campaign is playing the guilt by association card, and that's leaving some conservatives uneasy.

On Saturday, the recently unsequestered and newly empowered Sarah Palin went on the offensive, toting the "gloves are off" line and then rolled out the sound bite the McCain campaign knew would get a lot of ink pixels:

"Our opponent … is someone who sees America it seems as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country," she said to a boisterous crowd in California.

Mucho media

As a result, Obama's health care speech in North Carolina was squashed. All eyes and ears were on the moose-hunting governor of Alaska.

Palin was talking about Barack Obama's past relationship with Bill Ayers, the co-founder of the violent 1960s era group the Weather Underground.

"Low-blow," cried the Obama campaign emailing a list of news organizations that have concluded that the relationship between Obama and Ayers is tenuous.

Palin is Bill Laimbeer

Palin is now serving in her role as the enforcer or the attacker. Basically, she's Bill Laimbeer -- the four-time NBA all star who was notorious for his physical play. He'd rough you up with the goal of disrupting the game to get back on offense. Then again, sometimes he'd just rough you up for the heck of it.

Think of it as the last few minutes of a basketball game. Fans don't like it, but when a team is down the fouling begins. Purposeful fouls. The tactic is used to get the opposing team to the free throw line to stop the clock. If Shaquille O'Neal is on the free throw line, not only did you stop the clock - the odds are he'll miss the buckets. Your team gets the ball back with a chance to score.

It's an ugly way to wind down a game. But for the losing team, it's about the only shot they have. The question for the McCain campaign is -- how late in the fourth quarter is it?

Obama knows

The Obama campaign knows the score. Heck, in a conference call to reporters on Friday, a McCain official announced they were going to focus on "discussing Mr. Obama’s aggressively liberal record."

The challenge for Obama is not to allow the conversation to change.

"They'd rather try to tear our campaign down than lift this country up," Obama told a crowd in North Carolina. "That's what you do when you're out of touch, out of ideas, and running out of time. So I want all of you to be clear, I'm going to keep on talking about the issues that matter."

It's just campaigning

Like it or not, a campaign is sport. And people get very irritated when the media treat it that way. "This is not a game," they say. "This is the future of our country."

Regardless, this is how we elect our leaders. We let them campaign to earn the vote. And that means, use all legal means to make your case -- whether it be stump speeches, verbal attacks, negative ads, splinter groups, YouTube videos, email campaigns, whatever.

Character assassination

None of this is new to California Senator Diane Feinstein. She was on Face the Nation Sunday and predicted the month of October will be a rough one.

"This is going to be a month, I think, of character assassination," Feinstein said. "And so the Republican position is to try to assassinate Barack Obama's character and try to place him in a position where the trust that he has built dissipates, the credibility that he has dissipates."

Shoe on other foot

Who would disagree that if John McCain was up by 10 points, the same tactics wouldn't be used by Team Obama? Remember it was only a month ago when McCain was leading in the polls and the Obama campaign announced it would be playing hardball -- and for awhile was running more negative ads than McCain.

But times are different now, say some conservatives. They look back at 1992 when the economy took center stage and see some deja vu.

Stop the madness

Conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, also appearing on Face the Nation Sunday, doesn't believe a negative campaign can be successful.

"They don't understand how the same political tactics that they've used before, going after liberal, liberal, liberal, that's not going to work now because something has overshadowed it," Brooks explained. "And that overshadowing, that economic anxiety is just going to dominate the next five weeks. There's no way around that. And if they're not touching that, then they're not touching the core issue. And John McCain has not done it. And he hasn't done it over the weekend, where they've been attacking Obama for being too liberal or not loving America enough."

The L word

GOP strategist Mike Murphy, appearing on Meet the Press Sunday, shares Brooks' point of view - to a point. He agrees that it is all about the economy and that the character game isn't going to work. But he, unlike Brooks, thinks mentioning the L word and the potential for the L party to dominate the executive and legislative branches of government might equalize the poll numbers.

"Bring up the issue of the concept of a runaway liberal one-party train here in Washington," Murphy told host Tom Brokaw. "You know, just no checks and balances at all. McCain, a partisan, can-do pragmatist vs. the idea that everything in this town being run by the Democrats with no restraint, no balance, no control, and that’ll affect the economy in a bad way. I think that’s a better prosecution for the McCain campaign than these character attacks..."

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