For a few days prior to last night's debate, the McCain camp seemed to have decided to put its eggs into the guilt-by-association basket, linking Barack Obama to William Ayers at every opportunity and even raising (through Sarah Palin) the subject of Jeremiah Wright, whom the campaign had previously declared off the table. At the debate itself, though, this line of attack wasn't raised once, and Politico's Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith report that the campaign may shift away from it altogether:
After days of attempts to persuade voters that Obama’s ties to ‘60s radical Bill Ayers are a crucial character issue, McCain didn’t mention Ayers’ name during the 90 minutes of Tuesday’s forum. His top aides suggested afterward that, going forward, the candidate wouldn’t focus on the former domestic terrorist nor invoke the name of Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Nicolle Wallace, a top McCain adviser, hinted McCain would not bring it up. “If asked about it, of course [he’ll talk about Ayers],” she said.
McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt all but said the controversial pastor remained off-limits.
“What Sen. McCain has said is that it’s not an issue he intends to talk about in the race,” said the aide, though he did note that Obama himself had called Wright 'fair game.'
For now, this strikes me as a rather thin and equivocal disavowal of the strategy. We'll probably get a better sense of how sincere it is at the next Sarah Palin rally.
It is striking, though, the extent to which McCain and Palin seem to be running disconnected campaigns at the moment. She publicly encourages him to "take the gloves off" at the debate; he declines, and picks up on none of the assaults she's been leveling daily (on Ayers, on Obama's supposed criticism of our troops in Afghanistan, etc.). Indeed, as Frank Bruni noted in the Times, though McCain mentioned his friend Joe Lieberman four times during the debate, he didn't mention Palin once.
Over the course of the next week, it will be interesting to see how much this dual-track strategy seems calculated and how much it suggests genuine disagreements within the campaign. Either way, if McCain loses, expect the recriminations between his camp and Palin's supporters to be fierce.