McCain's aides are optimistic but also starting to assign blame.

McCain's aides are optimistic but also starting to assign blame.

McCain's aides are optimistic but also starting to assign blame.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Nov. 3 2008 10:08 PM

If McCain Loses, It's Not My Fault

Campaign aides are optimistic but also starting to assign blame.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

If there is any pessimism in the McCain camp, it's not coming from the candidate. On the stump in a hangar near Pittsburgh, he had more energy than any septuagenarian should have on three hours of sleep. So he was a little loopy here and there—"If you're Joe the Lieberman or Joe the Plumber, you're the best," he said, before mumbling, "Joe Joe Joe Joe Joe"—but he seems determined not to go out gently. McCain's aides are less successful at hiding their frustration. They exude optimism, too, but there's already a circular firing squad forming to assign blame. And in this firing squad, the guns point outward. The campaign pins the blame for McCain's struggles on an unholy trinity of factors: media (it's biased), money (Barack Obama has more), and milieu (politically, it's good for Democrats). The examples of media bias are countless, says McCain adviser and co-author Mark Salter. When Obama tried to pin the blame for the collapse of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac on McCain, the media did not object. When the McCain camp was accused of racism for raising Obama's association with William Ayers—again, no outcry. And somehow McCain kept getting pegged as the more negative of the two, despite a study showing that Obama was running more attack ads. How can the media set things right between now and Election Day? "Get on some topic other than 'Obama's gonna win,' " says Salter.

Advisers and even McCain himself also bring up the Democrat's spending advantage at every turn. But could greater spending be a sign of greater support? After all, as many observers have noted, Obama rallies attract far larger crowds than McCain rallies. But McCain aides are quick to say size doesn't matter. "Some of the biggest crowds I've seen came out for McGovern in '72," says Charlie Black. Salter cites cost. It's cheaper to book a smaller venue and, aside from the awe factor, just as effective in getting the message out. Obama's money also allows him to buy more ads—but as McCain adviser Rick Davis suggested, Obama's decision to buy time in North Dakota, Georgia, and Arizona is a sign of desperation: He's not winning in the states he's supposed to win, so he has to try and expand the electoral map.

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Finally, McCain's camp says his woes stem from an unfavorable political environment. There's not much you can do when your opponent keeps saying, "George Bush, George Bush, George Bush," Salter said, making punching motions. The Republican brand is hurting—a recent poll put the president's approval rating at about 26 percent and showed Democrats holding a 12-point advantage over Republicans on a generic congressional ballot. Obama has successfully lashed McCain to the sinking GOP ship. Again, Salter says, it comes back to cash: "They've spent a lot of money trying to dissipate the McCain brand," he explains. "Have they dinged it up? Sure."

It might be too early to call this venting blame. After all, McCain hasn't lost. But it's surely a preview of rationales to come if he does. Conspicuously absent from the scapegoats named above are two obvious ones: the economy and Sarah Palin. Blaming the economy would acknowledge McCain's perceived weakness on the issue. And blaming Palin would amount to questioning McCain's judgment.

Besides, there will be plenty of time for that kind of blame game later. In the meantime, the campaign is sticking with its comeback prediction: The polls are tightening, late deciders will swing heavily for McCain, and Obama tends to underperform in actual elections (as opposed to surveys).

That logic seems to be enough to keep McCain chipper. The senator has maintained an inhuman travel schedule, hitting seven states in 26 hours. He pulls this off by 1) leveraging the time zones to extend the day by three hours, and 2) holding most events at airports, thus justifying the Top Gun intro music. He also just added two 13th-hour stops in Colorado and New Mexico on Tuesday, despite the McCain tradition of going to the movies on Election Day.

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If McCain feels like this is the end, he doesn't show it. The rallies feel remarkably normal. He's got his usual merry band, including Joe the Lieberman and court-jester-in-waiting Lindsey Graham. He's even rolling out new material. McCain warned the Pittsburgh crowd that Obama told the San Francisco Chronicle—McCain said San Francisco like you'd describe a turd—that "if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It's just that it will bankrupt them."

McCain pledged not to let coal factories suffer, although clean coal would be the eventual goal—a caveat that sort of killed the applause. He also chided Obama for his caution on nuclear energy. "Ask the Navy," he said. "We've been sailing ships around the world with nuclear power plants on them for 60 years!"

There's a sense among journalists that this story arc needs a resolution. In Indiana, two reporters lamented the lack of material: "I feel bad." "Why?" "Because I don't have anything." And McCain seems determined not to provide anything—for good reason. Not all campaigns end with an explosion or even a whimper. One moment they're going at breakneck speed, and then they stop.