What McCain Must Do Tonight

What McCain Must Do Tonight

By Tom Bevan - October 15, 2008

If John McCain is going to mount a comeback against Barack Obama, it has to start tonight. That's a fairly daunting challenge, given that presidential debates rarely produce "game changing" moments in a campaign.

McCain doesn't need a "knockout" - whatever that term might mean - but he almost certainly needs to come away from tonight with a clear victory over Senator Obama that will help jump start his flagging campaign. A draw will not do.

Tonight's debate offers McCain his last chance to break through the hazy clutter of the campaign and speak directly to large number of Americans who will be heading to the polls on Election Day. Here are three things McCain must do to walk away from tonight's debate a winner:

1) Be genial but aggressive. The Obama campaign has been effective at portraying McCain as angry and erratic - often with help from McCain himself. McCain has to be on the offensive at all times tonight, but he has to do so with a demeanor that won't turn voters off. According to recent polls, McCain is already seen as the "more negative" of the two candidates, so his task is to present himself as the "Happy Warrior" while hitting Obama with solid shots on his record.

2) Draw stark contrasts. McCain has failed thus far to draw the kind of ideological contrasts that typically resonate with voters. With the financial crisis dominating so much of the discussion, McCain has less freedom to make the traditional liberal vs. conservative critique on other issues like abortion or gun rights without appearing to go off topic. But Obama handed McCain a golden opportunity this week by being caught on tape telling a plumber in Ohio that his economic plan seeks to "spread the wealth around." That phrase that neatly captures for McCain the attack that Obama is a liberal income redistributionist who wants to take from the haves and give to the have nots.

3) Make his case. McCain needs to do more than pepper his responses with reasons people should vote against Obama. He needs to offer people - specifically those in the large swath of Middle America - reasons to vote for him. Voters see McCain as vastly more experienced than Obama, and more qualified to handle issue of national security. But Obama has surpassed McCain on the crucial question of who voters trust to deal with the economy and who voters think understands their needs and problems. McCain is the one who needs to answer voters' doubts tonight that he is up to the job of looking after their economic interests as well.

Presidential races are all about momentum. Obama has it. To win, McCain needs to get it back. With three weeks to go, tonight's debate is the only event left on the schedule that is under McCain's control. If he fails to capitalize on the opportunity, McCain will have to spend the next twenty-one days hoping for an outside event or an Obama stumble to avoid defeat on November 4.

Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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