How desperate is McCain?
Today's topic: What's lurking out there that could fundamentally reshape the race, or are the basic story lines all in place? What if Osama bin Laden were captured? What if more banks fail? Previously, Welch and Crayton discussed the changing demographics of the electorate and how effectively the candidates are appealing to voters.

Only war or terrorism could help McCain now
Point: Matt Welch

Kareem,

There has been exactly one moment in the general election campaign when external events actually helped John McCain in the polls. That's when Russia sent tanks and troops from the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia into the non-breakaway region of Georgia proper as an act of intimidation against a former Soviet state it has treated as an irritant ever since the dissolution of the Evil Empire.

Barack Obama was on vacation in Hawaii at the time, so McCain leaped into action, denouncing the attack, reiterating his suddenly not-so-crazy-sounding call to kick Russia out of the Group of Eight industrialized nations and expressing a deep fluency in (and an escalationist exaggeration about) both Georgia and the goings-on in Russia's near abroad. It played into McCain's main personal interest, foreign policy, and his chief value proposition this election: Vote for the tough guy and great man who has forgotten more military-political policy than Obama has ever learned. For a week or two after Russia invaded Georgia, McCain's polls shot up, demonstrating not for the first time this century that voters in a foreign-policy pinch tend to go with the knowledgeably bellicose.

This suggests the only kind of October surprise that has a chance of helping McCain. With each dip in the economy giving Democrats extra juice (no matter how many Hail Mary nationalizations McCain might propose), the election-year fundamentals already so terrible for Republicans and the third of four major debates now safely behind us without any real advantage taken by the Republican ticket, the only thing right now that could "reshape the race" in McCain's favor is either a foreign conflagration or a domestic act of terrorism.

Both events are hard to war-game in terms of voter reaction because they touch on existential-level senses of fear and discombulation. With seven mostly terrorism-free years in the U.S. behind us, we have mostly forgotten what it was like to feel utter dread when taking a plane, going to the ballgame, shopping at the mall or even opening an envelope. As recently as the last election, concrete fears about terrorism and preoccupation with war dominated the campaign and tipped voters from the wishy-washiness of John Kerry to the Zell Miller rageaholicism of George W. Bush (abetted by McCain, who said during the 2004 Republican National Convention, "Only the most deluded of us could doubt the necessity of this war").

Cut to Tuesday night's debate and the reason why I'm beginning to think that even a shooting war against Pakistan couldn't help McCain now. During the foreign policy half-hour at the end, McCain ticked off a list of military interventions he had supported through the years, but left off Iraq. Obama pounced, attacking McCain's "judgment" for moving the fight away from Al Qaeda to a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 massacre. He ridiculed McCain's claim to, Teddy Roosevelt-style, "talk softly and carry a big stick" by accurately pointing out that the Arizona senator has made jokes about bombing Iran and serious comments about threatening North Korea with annihilation. McCain mumbled something ineffective in response, then made the by-now ludicrous-sounding claim that he was the only candidate who can offer a "steady hand on the tiller." In a moment, Obama took McCain's one advantage on paper -- foreign policy -- and came out ahead on points.

It's been two debates in a row now in which McCain was unable to leverage foreign policy in his favor. People remember his showy stunt threatening to pull out of the first debate as being all about the disastrous bailout package in Washington, but what's less often discussed is that that debate was supposed to be only about foreign policy. Instead of having his clearest opportunity yet to bring some of that old Georgian magic back (and on the first one-on-one debate to boot), McCain instead was forced to field an hour's worth of questions on a topic voters trust him less on. It was, for his fleeting prospects, a disaster.

So, to answer the question: Osama bin Laden's capture would change very little of the campaign dynamic, I think, because it's not as if either candidate doesn't have loud plans to chase him to the gates of hell, or at least Waziristan. If more banks fail, well, that's going to happen anyway, and none of that will dislodge McCain from second-place status. And even if the most likely foreign policy crisis scenario unfolds -- some kind of military conflict in Pakistan -- it's notable that Obama has been out-hawking McCain on Pakistan for the whole campaign, last night included.

Unless we see a mushroom cloud somewhere, the only real game-changer I can foresee is an act of terrorism on American soil. There's no automatic rule saying that would bring undecided voters into the McCain camp, but because we're a country of amnesiacs and we haven't been at Maximum Threat Level mode for years now, there's just no telling how it would play out. Given how crazy this campaign has been, however, the one thing we can continue to expect is the unexpected.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of Reason magazine and the author of "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick."

It didn't have to be this way for McCain
Counterpoint: Kareem Crayton

Matt,

Your post reminds me of a few lines from a song by Bonnie Raitt, "I Can't Help You Now": "Maybe there was a time, but sometimes time runs out."

We seem to have a shared view of where this election is heading for the McCain-Palin ticket. Without a huge event that captures the electorate's attention (I mean, aside from the one already occurring in the financial markets), the governors of Illinois and Delaware will start thinking on Nov. 5 about new appointments to the Senate.

I won't dispute your analysis of last night's town hall "debate," which I think did John McCain no favors when he needed a truckload of them. At best, he played Barack Obama to a draw in their exchanges on issues (including, as you rightly mention, foreign policy). At worst, McCain helped cement the growing sense in the public that the election is slipping away from him (ironically, he and his wife even slipped away off the stage shortly after the debate ended). Either way, last night was not the game-changer that the Republicans were looking for. One post-debate poll of people who watched the affair showed that while Obama's approval numbers ticked up a few points, McCain's ratings didn't change much.

But I don't believe, Matt, that McCain's current predicament was entirely unavoidable. McCain was one of the few Republicans who could advance his case as a strong candidate in an otherwise dismal year for his party. He wrapped up his nomination very early and had the time to orchestrate a plan to be competitive. It's also easy to forget that, during much of the summer, McCain had closed the gap in the polls by raising some legitimate questions about Obama. Remember that barrage of clever ads lampooning some of Obama's rather inartful comments on the campaign trail? Who would have expected that an image of the late Charlton Heston (as Moses, no less) could effectively mock a Democratic candidate?

I also differed with many of my friends about McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. His choice struck me as a rather inspired, if also unconventional, move that could (and, for a while, did) energize the party regulars in the GOP and put new states on the electoral map in play.

But the problem with both of these rather bold strategic moves is that they only have a chance to succeed if they are preludes to something substantive. As my old boss on Capitol Hill used to say, "In politics, you always gotta have Act 2." Grabbing the public's attention will not serve a candidate well unless he can then provide reasons to sustain that attention. McCain did not follow either of these reasonably strong openings with a compelling policy argument for why he would make a better president. One argument that I expected to hear was a riff on the value of divided government -- something that appeals to many independent voters. McCain could have offered himself as the lone antidote to the kind "reckless, runaway spending" that Republicans typically accuse congressional Democrats of loving.

But that never happened. The big policy idea from the Republicans during the summer amounted to a punch line, "Drill, baby, drill" -- arguably clever in the short run but empty in the long term. And the selection of Palin, while initially eye-catching, seemed far less exciting once it became apparent that the campaign had no clear strategy for introducing her to the media. The governor's eventual news interviews, particularly the ones with Katie Couric, were clearly not the best showcase of her strengths (to put it mildly).

McCain finally tried to move to Act 2 with a proposal that the Treasury buy up existing mortgages to ease the financial burden on homeowners (an idea that makes some sense), but it was far too late. Perhaps Steve Schmidt and the others in the GOP high command believed that these initial steps to finally get into the race were enough to make it through election day, or perhaps they didn't anticipate that the economic crisis would so quickly overwhelm every other policy issue. Whatever the reasons, the absence of an Act 2 in the McCain strategy has largely erased his early gains of the general election campaign and now poises the Republicans for an unhappy November.

So what else is left in the last few weeks that could possibly change this trajectory? I tend to agree with you, Matt, that the usual suspects -- a foreign policy or national security flare-up -- may not even be sufficient to cause any double-takes. To the "emergency" category, though, I would propose another for the "unknowables" pile -- a new revelation about any candidate that is personal in nature. They typically come in two varieties: getting caught in a big lie and having a troubling, previously unknown association. Both candidates have had examples of the latter (a Chicago clergyman and Washington lobbyist come to mind), but that's pretty much old news at this point. On the other hand, we still await the report from Alaska on Palin's firing of a state agency leader.

Let me emphasize: I don't know anything at all about any of these four candidates that would qualify as a personal revelation. All I mean to say is that at this stage, only something that is genuinely shocking about a candidate (say, the revelation of an alien being living in their chest cavity) would change the way this race is shaping up.

Kareem Crayton is an associate professor of law and political science at USC. He is an expert on election law and serves as a consultant for redistrictinggame.com.