I think Noam's right that McCain needs to do something dramatic and mavericky in tonight's debate, but he had a perfect opportunity to do that yesterday, and he blew it.
In case you haven't seen it, watch this video from a campaign rally McCain held yesterday in New Mexico. After McCain asks, "Who is the real Barack Obama?" someone in the crowd yells "Terrorist!" For a second there, McCain looks slightly taken aback, but then he pushes aside whatever qualms he might have and simply plunges ahead with the rest of his speech.
What if McCain, instead of continuing with his speech, had stopped cold, looked the audience member in the eye, and gently but sternly rebuked him with a homily about how we're all Americans and the problem with Obama isn't that he's a bad man or a terrorist, but that he's wrong on the issues? Sure, it would have been hypocritical--it's no coincidence McCain's supporters think Obama's a terrorist when you've got Sarah Palin accusing him of palling around with one--but it would have been dramatic and mavericky as hell, too. It would have been the lead campaign story on all the networks, it would have become a YouTube sensation, and it would have burnished McCain's badly tarnished brand as an atypically honorable and different sort of politician.
And just in case you think that sort of moment never happens, it does. It even happened as recently as 2006 and, oddly enough, it came courtesy of Rudy Giuliani. As Slate's John Dickerson described the scene that occurred at a Republican campaign event in Potomac, Maryland:
As the mayor answered the last of the three questions from reporters, he talked about the root causes of terrorism: "oppressive governments that demagogue and blame and project their problems other places and do nothing to solve the problems of their own people."
"Sounds like the Democrats," shouted a man.
The crowd roared.
It was the kind of stupid remark candidates usually ignore. They either agree but can't show that they do, or they don't want to cause a stir by contradicting one of the partisans they've come to court. Giuliani's aides were already preparing to move him to his waiting SUV. He could have just left.
"Time out," he said bringing his hands together to make a T. "Time out." The crowd quieted down. "The other thing we have to learn is that we can't get into this partisan bickering. The fact is that Republicans and Democrats have the same objectives. … Democrats are loyal Americans. Republicans are loyal Americans. I think we have better answers, but we have to respect each other."
Of course, Dickerson's coda to this story was the prediction that "This guy is never going to get the nomination." But if McCain's going to spend the next four weeks throwing Hail Mary's, he might as well throw some that actually enhance his reputation, rather than further degrade it. After all, there's a reason Bob Dole was able to bounce back from his loss to Bill Clinton and score that Viagra endorsement deal.