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Tonight's Debate And Mccain's Catch-22

One day after some pundits proclaimed McCain toast, it's scarcely worth pointing out that half-measures won't cut it tonight. Another 90 minutes of tepid insuations about preparedness and naivete will earn McCain far more abuse than it will bring down on Obama.

So McCain has to go dramatic tonight. The question is, what kind of drama?

Option one would be to race back to maverick-land. Under this scenario, McCain would rail against Wall Street greed and government inaction. If he's feeling really frisky, he might bash House Republicans and revive Andrew Cuomo's SEC prospects.

Option two would be to double down on the character attacks his campaign has said it will pursue. That would mean explicitly invoking Bill Ayers--possibly even Jeremiah Wright, though Wright's a little touchy given the skeletons in Sarah Palin's own church. (Then again, no half measures, right?)

The problem with option one is that it didn't really work the first time McCain tried it. Voter attitudes on the economy are pretty hardened by this point. Any discussion of it--even the maverick kind--only reminds them that they prefer Democrats to Republicans. On the other hand, the financial crisis isn't receding any time soon. If it's going to be topic A from here on out, McCain needs to displace the image of that gimmicky campaign suspension, which is the main way he figures into discussions of the crisis these days. And if it fails, at least McCain loses with a little dignity, a resource he's rapidly depleting.

As for option two, I don't rate it much more highly. The pundits roundly jeered McCain last time out for the misdemeanor of insufficient eye contact. A direct assault on Obama's patriotism would go over much, much worse--we're talking attempted murder here. And while you could argue that the folks at home would see it differently, I get the sense most people feel like they've heard this charge before. If not Ayers per se, then certainly questions about Obama's dubious loyalties. Unless McCain has some startling revelation to share, I don't think he'll get much bang for his buck.

Which is why I'd guess McCain goes for some combination of the two. He desperately wants to reclaim his maverick bona fides, which are central to his self-image. So I expect a Cuomo-esque announcement. At the same time, given his penchant for demonizing opponents, he'll take to the knee-capping with righteous zeal. (Remember  this?)

So there should be drama aplenty. If anything, too much. What McCain doesn't realize is that his greatest enemy isn't Obama, or even the collapsing economy. It's the perception that he's an erratic old coot. That creates a deadly Catch-22: The only way you erase a 6-point deficit is by doing something dramatic. But the moment  McCain does something dramatic, he reminds people he's an erratic old coot--the reason he's down in the first place.

I don't know the answer to this dilemma of his. And I suspect we won't find out tonight.

--Noam Scheiber