Message Muddle

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008; 10:14 AM

Remember a few short weeks ago, when the race was tight and the pundits were goading Barack Obama to get aggressive and sharpen his message or see the thing slip away?

He mostly ignored them and seems to have done all right for himself.

Now the forensic journalists are examining what ails John McCain, and the diagnosis is ugly. His campaign is a mess, he got too angry, he stretched the truth, he was all about tearing down Obama, he was erratic on the financial crisis, and he was tarnishing his own reputation in the process.

What happened to the happy warrior who used to enjoy the give-and-take with journalists rather than bashing them?

Even Bill Kristol declared that McCain should fire his campaign, stop the attack ads, start giving more interviews and generally go positive -- this after a fellow named Bill Kristol suggested to Sarah Palin that the ticket go after Jeremiah Wright because he was a more central figure in Obama's life than Bill Ayers.

But there's no pleasing the political press corps sometimes. After demanding that McCain drop the palling-around-with-terrorists approach, some pundits reacted to the Arizonan's more subdued tone this week by saying he keeps careening from one message to the next.

It's like the baseball playoffs, folks. As long as McCain remains several runs behind, he's going to be treated like the Chicago Cubs. If he were to tie the game, the armchair managers would go back to questioning whether Obama is like the Red Sox -- a favorite on the verge of blowing it.

For now, the defections on the right continue. And Christopher Buckley, who as noted in this space has endorsed Obama, has paid the price by losing his National Review column.

Punditry prediction: If McCain doesn't leave Obama bowed and bloodied at tonight's Bob Schieffer debate, the prognosticators will say again and again that he failed to come up with a "game-changer" -- code for a verdict that he has little chance of turning the campaign around.

As if to underscore the point:

"The McCain campaign's recent angry tone and sharply personal attacks on Senator Barack Obama appear to have backfired and tarnished Senator John McCain more than their intended target, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll has found.

"After several weeks in which the McCain campaign unleashed a series of harsh political attacks on Mr. Obama, trying to tie him to a former 1960s radical, among other things, the poll found that voters see Mr. McCain as waging a more negative campaign than Mr. Obama. Six in 10 of those surveyed said that Mr. McCain had spent more time attacking Mr. Obama than explaining what he would do as president; by the same margin voters said Mr. Obama was spending more of his time explaining than attacking.


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