I've asked our contributors to weigh in on what McCain can do to turn things around. My effort is below.
I should caveat by saying that this is not a happy post. Part of the reason I believe McCain's drop has been so precipitious is that we are in fact seeing is a return to the natural equilibrium of the race, which was 4-6 points pro-Obama before the Celeb ad, Palin, and the RNC. Obama's lead now is in the range of where it was when he first captured the Democratic nomination.
One of the striking features of this election is how little has been done to dent Obama's fav/unfav. Obama's unfavorability barely cracks 35, and he benefits from a 20+ point spread on this measure. This is a back-to-the-future moment. Lee Atwater famously proclaimed that any candidate with unfavorables over 40 was dead, and ever since every national candidate has been walking dead by this measure... until Obama.
Part of this has been because McCain has been so late to the game in seriously and systematically undermining Obama. Bush's first negative ad of the 2004 campaign was aired on March 15th. It was on July 31st that McCain landed his first punch with the "Celeb" ad. And even then, there was a disconnect between the ad's premise and its conclusion. As I wrote during the rollout:
Where it trails off is that the portrait doesn't match the frame. After framing up Obama's celebrity perfectly, the ad transitions into a standard Republican litany on taxes and gas prices. What exactly this has to do with Obama being like Paris Hilton isn't clear.
The ad would have been more thematically seamless if it honed in on the one or two best examples of Obama's naivite or selling American interests down the river to please the adoring Berlin crowds. Obama's "without preconditions" quote on Iran would be a perfect example. The theme: Obama's celebrity naivite isn't just misguided. It's dangerous.
The most effective narratives are those where personality traits can be tied to issues in a way that creates a seamless narrative construct for a voter to view the race.
Bush 41 looking at his watch was a metaphor for his being out of touch on the economy. Kerry's personal wishy-washiness was a metaphor for his weakness on the war on terror. Personality can serve as a metaphor and window into the Presidency.
What is Obama's celebrity a metaphor for? What is the meta-narrative about Obama we are looking to drive? That's never been clear to me. If it's his inexperience, merely stating it won't cut it. You need to find real-time examples of his acting naive or inexperienced. There have been exactly two in this campaign: "without preconditions" and Wright. And those haven't been foregrounded by McCain nearly to the same extent Kerry's $87 billion remark was.
If you're asking me, everything the campaign does must drive towards the idea that Obama is a self-centered Gen X naif. Since Obama's words can appear to be sophisticated, allowing him to argue he has "wisdom beyond his years" I would redouble attempts to poison his personality as a political asset -- Sarah Palin's two memoirs and no major laws line, the clip of him dancing on Ellen (I would replay this over and over in ads), his manifest love affair with himself (there is a line in Dreams from My Father in which he professes his love of his own voice speaking to a group of fellow college students).
McCain must proceed to highlight the consequences of Obama's politics of self and in the process use the attack as a device to tell a story about McCain. Obama is about all about himself and the adulation of the crowds. McCain is about country and service and pulling together in a time of crisis. Obama is the kind of President you elect in a peaceful, self-indulgent time. McCain is who you elect when the house is burning down.
A perfect opportunity arose in the last debate and like "global test" four years earlier, McCain exploited it in real time -- but failed to follow up.
When Barack Obama was asked what spending he would cut in the face of the financial crisis, he gave a laundry list of programs he would increase. That's the answer of a typical self-centered politician who desperately seeks approval. McCain, appropriately, said he would freeze government -- a courageous act of sacrifice.
There was a time back in 2000 when McCain harkened directly to this spirit of service and sacrifice, the "serving a cause greater than your self-interest" sentiment that could have served him well in during the financial crisis. For all his hopeful rhetoric, even Obama has been unable to communicate a sense of confidence that even though things are tough now, if we all pull together and do the right things, we will come through this stronger than ever. Obama's rhetoric on the bailout has been Carteresque, and McCain's hasn't been much better. Specifically, while McCain was directing reformist invective at Wall Street (which no one believed) he should have been talking about what the crisis meant for we as Americans.
America could have used this rhetorical pivot from short term realism to long term optimism. It's not pollyannish. It directly acknowledges the severity of the crisis today while giving people hope about tomorrow. In a time of crisis people look both for a clear-eyed explanation of the problem and a sense of reassurance. This is the type of blood, sweat, toil, and tears rhetoric Bush should have been using on Iraq all along, and there, McCain was a role model for it. The 2008 environment was suited for this kind of tough-minded can-do rhetoric, and Obama's lackadasical vagueness made him vulnerable.
It's up to McCain to elevate the role of President to a place where Obama won't go and can't reach. In a time of financial turmoil, McCain needs to drive home the point that now is not the time for conventional, irresponsible, and petty political promises, like a massive socialization of the health care industry or increasing funding for the alphabet soup of government agencies. Sorry, but this also means that tax cuts are probably off the table too -- as well as tax increases that would steal resources from the private economy when they're needed most. Explicitly, McCain should make the case that America can't afford another party-line President, and that he'd be a post-partisan leader who would steer us through a time of turmoil.
The Keating attack is actually an opportunity to drive home McCain's sense of self-sacrifice. Though McCain was cleared of wrongdoing, he can make the point that this is what drove him to become a political reformer and a thorn in the side of his fellow Republicans. Told right, this story of redemption could break the dials tomorrow night. It also fits into the broader frame of service vs. selfishness. Obama thinks only about himself, and didn't change his ways when a greedy real estate developer sought to buy him off. McCain had an awakening when the same thing happened to him.
The Ayers stuff will be useful in solidifying the base and getting Obama's unfavorables to 40. But it's not a gamechanger. A casualty of McCain's months-long delay in going on offense is that he's had to debut his harshest material in October rather than road-testing it over the summer. In this sense, throwing in the kitchen sink now looks desperate and reactive, even though it was probably inevitable. Still, it would have been far better had McCain given his campaign license to launch these attacks at a time and place of its choosing, rather than having events force his hand.
Though I have a decent regard for my strategy over the others on offer, I am realistic about the prospects for a sudden turnaround right now. The strength of the Obama campaign is that it can be summed up in one word: Change. This is the unifying lens through which they want you to see the world. It's been an unwavering constant of their campaign. Bush's unifying thought in 2004 was strength against our enemies. Can someone please explain to me the single word that describes the McCain campaign? Even if they came to one now, they'd be 19 months too late.