McCain Campaign Tries To See Glass as Half Full

Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin attend a rally at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin attend a rally at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. (By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008

NASHVILLE, Oct. 8 -- It was a late night for John McCain's campaign -- a post-debate repast of karaoke until the wee hours of the rain-soaked morning. They sang neither in celebration nor to drown their sorrows. Tuesday's presidential debate did not fundamentally alter the race.

Instant polls judged Barack Obama the winner. The post-debate chatter on cable news channels tended to favor the Democrat. Even reliably conservative voices on CNN -- Alex Castellanos, Leslie Sanchez and William Bennett -- found it hard to award the evening to McCain. When the polls are heading in one direction, conventional wisdom follows.

Which is why McCain needs the numbers to move, even a bit, the other way. He's like the stock market. Lack of confidence breeds retreat. He needs an injection of fresh political confidence.

Mark Salter, the candidate's alter ego and confidant, was in the lobby of McCain's hotel Wednesday, neither grim nor giddy but still shaking out cobwebs. "We've been dead before," he said.

He would know, having weathered McCain's long, wild ride through the primaries and now the general-election campaign. But is there a plan? "We can't die again," he said.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke couldn't have said it better. Try something and see if it works. If that isn't sufficient, try something else. McCain's answer in the debate was a $300 billion plan to stabilize the housing market by buying up and renegotiating bad mortgages.

The overnight focus groups McCain's campaign conducted offered a little comfort. The voters assembled by the campaign said they thought both candidates did well, and now it's on to the next round.

Mike DuHaime, McCain's political director, said internal campaign polling does not make the electoral map look as bad as some public polls suggest. For example: Asked why, if he has given up on Michigan, McCain has not given up on Iowa, a state that looks strong for Obama in public polls, DuHaime said because the campaign's polling has Obama's lead in the low single digits.

Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, told reporters after the debate that he still likes his candidate's situation. Better, he said, to be defending red states than having to convert blue states to win. McCain has a lot of them to defend -- Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio and Virginia.

DuHaime said there is evidence that McCain is catching up to Obama in the battle to mobilize voters. The past two weeks, he said, the campaign has contacted more voters, by phone and door-to-door, than the vaunted Bush machine did in comparable weeks four years ago. One week, he said, was 40 percent higher than last year.

Part of that is the Palin effect. McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate brought a surge of new volunteers to the effort. They are helping to produce mountains of data -- the results of every call are entered into a database overnight for the campaign and officials at the Republican National Committee to parse. When combined with other information, the team can see how McCain is improving or slipping among different categories of voters, sliced every which way through microtargeting analysis.

What to do? Scott Reed, who ran Robert J. Dole's presidential campaign 12 years ago, said McCain should offer a more comprehensive economic plan that deals with the current crisis -- and "stay focused on Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin."

Tad Devine, who was at the center of the past two Democratic campaigns, argued that McCain is in worse shape than either Al Gore or John F. Kerry at this time in their runs. He offered a clinical strategy that he said is McCain's best hope: Forget the Kerry states (including New Hampshire), as well as Iowa and New Mexico, and put everything into Florida and Ohio.

"To do that, he must attack Obama, with ads that work in those places, down to the individual markets," he wrote in a message.

John Weaver, who once was McCain's chief strategist, said the Republican needs global movement. "There are too many problematic states for the campaign to try to play prevent defense in any one, which doesn't usually work even when you're ahead," he wrote.

Tuesday's debate did not really answer the question many Americans are asking: Are either of the candidates truly up to tackling the problems the next president will inherit?

For the second consecutive debate, neither fully stepped up to the moment of a country in an economic crisis, with voters deeply anxious about their jobs, mortgages, retirement savings and health care. Both played the blame game over who was more complicit in allowing the problems to develop; both talked about ways to prevent the next crisis when resolving the current problem is the nation's real priority.

Obama was calm at a time when calm is valuable. But he was focused on winning the debate and the election. That's smart politics, but in less than a month he could be the president-elect, and then the whole mess would be on his shoulders. Does he have the passion and the sense of urgency to restore confidence as Franklin D. Roosevelt did when he assumed the presidency in 1933?

McCain was better in this debate than the first -- more engaged with his rival and engaged with those asking the questions. He offered his mortgage plan to show he gets the problems people are feeling, but he did so in a way that left many questions. And, while he insisted he knows how to solve the nation's economic problems, he provided no evidence.

But how Obama has used the first two debates effectively is to convince voters that he is as capable as McCain when it comes to taking over the presidency. McCain's strategy is grounded in the need to disqualify his opponent. But after two debates, in head-to-head competition, Obama has not come off as the callow youth to McCain's steady hand.

The final debate, on Oct. 15, could be the best of the three -- just the two candidates at a table with CBS News's Bob Schieffer as moderator. The topic will be domestic issues and the forum will be an opportunity to bore in on both candidates in ways the first two debates have not allowed.

In the meantime, McCain will need to gather fresh momentum somehow. But the narrative has turned sharply against him and his every move is questioned. If he gets tough, it's described as desperation. If he deals only with the economy, it plays to the Democrats' natural advantage.

But inside the McCain campaign there is resolve, which comes from the candidate himself. Whatever difficult days lie ahead, they believe they have seen worse. McCain put it best in his closing statement Tuesday: "I know what it's like in dark times. I know what it's like to have to fight to keep one's hope going through difficult times. I know what it's like to rely on others for support and courage and love in tough times. I know what it's like to have your comrades reach out to you and your neighbors and your fellow citizens and pick you up and put you back in the fight."

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