McCain: The risky choice for president

After betting his campaign on efforts to smear Barack Obama, John McCain finds he's the one voters don't trust.

Published October 15, 2008 3:19AM (EDT)

There's so much bad news for John McCain and good news for Barack Obama lately it's hard to zero in on any one development. But a couple of things jumped out at me in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Clearly the McCain camp decided weeks ago that its only hope was bludgeoning Obama, turning him into a terrorist-loving caricature. It pretty much said that to reporters. And while that's gone over big at McCain-Palin rallies, where their supporters call Obama a "terrorist" and a "traitor," and carry stuffed monkeys with Obama stickers on their foreheads, it hasn't worked with the American people. In fact, more people now consider McCain the "risky" choice for president: 50 percent of those polled called McCain risky, vs. 45 percent for Obama, while 29 percent considered Obama a "very safe" choice, vs. only 18 percent for McCain. Oh, and by the way: McCain's negatives have climbed 9 percent since the last poll.

Let's take that in: John McCain the war hero, the straight-talk guy with the long history as a bipartisan stalwart in Congress. John McCain is now a more risky choice for president than a first-term senator by the name of Barack Hussein Obama? There is a God.

I was on "Larry King Live" Monday with GOP stalwarts Kevin Madden and Bay Buchanan (along with Paul Begala holding up the Democratic side), and while they held out hope for McCain, their hearts didn't seem to be in it. Madden tried to blast Obama as "too liberal" for the American people, while Buchanan insisted Americans will reject his potentially big-spending ways. But on a day when Republican Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson laid out his plan to spend $250 billion in taxpayer dollars to buy an equity stake in American banks, I asked them, what do terms like "liberal" and "big-spending" mean? Republicans seem lost in this changed world.

The best thing is that on the very same day, Obama laid out his own plan to put money in the hands of homeowners, taxpayers and small businesses, not just bankers. Many readers will remember I was critical of Obama during the primary campaign; I thought he didn't talk enough economic populism, and that's why Hillary Clinton crushed him in some of the closing primaries in economically vulnerable states. But Obama has come into his own in the last month. He's not Hillary, and he's not Bill Clinton; he's not Joe Biden, either. (I did love seeing the three of them this weekend in Scranton, Pa., I will say.) Obama is the person he always was, with more specifics in his stump speech, more heft. According to most polls, this thoughtful, ruminative, compassionate guy is very reassuring to voters facing a global economic meltdown. Obama is feeling like the right person for the job right now, right on time.

I almost feel sorry for John McCain. His statement Monday that "we've got them just where we want them," now that he's behind in every poll, often by double digits, might go down in history as being as deluded a statement as "the fundamentals of our economy are strong." But the McCain camp doubled down on its bet that the Republican base was the key to the election, first with the Palin pick, and then with its decision to just go negative on Obama. The base loves it, but the campaign has scared off independents and moderates.

The Republicans have three weeks. It's a lifetime in politics; we all remember what the Osama bin Laden tape did the last weekend of the John Kerry-George W. Bush race in 2004. Anything can happen. Still, I have deep faith in the American people, who have so far rejected the McCain fear and smear campaign. We'll just keep watching.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections