Where's McCain's message?
An old political adage says, "He who sets the debate wins the election."
If the presidential election was held tomorrow, it would be hello President Barack Obama because, so far, John McCain is handing him a victory.
McCain is better than the campaign he has run so far. Most people admit that McCain is an inspirational figure -- even Obama has admitted that -- so why isn't McCain telling voters where he wants to lead them?
Instead, his campaign is all about his opponent.
"He himself is reinforcing that this campaign is all about Obama," says Democrat strategist Mark Siegel. "His ads and his message are all negatives. The problem with that is, it is driving his own negatives up as well."
GOP strategist David Carney disagrees; he says the McCain campaign has no choice but to do what it can to bring down Obama by constantly introducing him to voters through his flaws. "There is no positive that will help McCain," he insists.
Obama's critics say there is no substance behind his rhetoric -- but McCain's critics and supporters alike are wondering where is the rhetoric and the substance•
They know McCain is bigger than the campaign he is running, and wonder why he is acting so small.
Siegel points to Bob Dole's campaign against Bill Clinton in 1996, when "the message that Dole was running on against Clinton was, 'Where is the outrage?'
"Dole had nothing positive to say," he adds. "He came across as a snarling, angry old man and, frankly, McCain is looking snarlier, angrier and older than Dole."
McCain is very smart; his political instincts generally are very good when he is confident and on firm ground. But they are terrible when he feels things are out of control and when he loses faith in himself or the people around him.
Today's close opinion polls have everything to do with Obama. He has not pulled ahead of McCain because he still is an unknown, he's black -- and pollsters have not expanded their universes to include the baseline of the new black and youth voters.
Another reason the polling should offer little comfort to Republicans is that the numbers mirror 1980's closeness between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
That race was not about Carter in the same way this race is not about McCain. Reagan's biggest hurdle was passing the commander-in-chief test; while remaining tied with Carter, Reagan went the entire summer and into the fall passing threshold after threshold. By the end of October, it all broke Reagan's way.
This race has that same feel to it for Obama.
Most of the game of a presidential election is mental; it is, literally, all inside a campaign's head. To remain competitive, the McCain campaign should set the agenda, stop reacting to what Obama does -- and let McCain be the bigger guy.
Hard as this is to implement, the McCain campaign should ignore the polls and allow a McCain narrative, with his kind of message, to run its course. Traditionally, campaigns that are ahead in the polls can't help but be smug. Once McCain actually has a message that is about him, it will force Obama to react to it and to McCain's core values.
What the McCainiacs should stop doing is using their man as a prop in a supermarket, as if he is somebody's grandfather in a suit and tie shopping for groceries. That is not who John McCain is to Americans.
And McCain just looks plain uncomfortable attacking Obama day in and day out. Isn't that what a surrogate should be doing?
For his own good, he should stop talking about Obama. It's like the first rule of Fight Club: Never talk about Fight Club.
As Democrat Siegel says, all that accomplishes is to trivialize the campaign.
McCain must get back to talking about reforming Washington and how that applies to average Americans and how he will lead the way.
McCain Reform can trump Obama Change. In fact, reform means change with stability attached to it, and stability is the one thing that can undercut change.
The choice right now is change with a guy who is running through the forest followed by bluebirds and unicorns -- and with a grumpy old man shouting at him.
Sort of like a Grimm's fairy tale on steroids.