Image: McCain
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., addresses the crowd as he makes a campaign stop at the Maine Military Museum in South Portland, Maine, Monday, July 21, 2008.
updated 7/22/2008 2:05:24 PM ET 2008-07-22T18:05:24

John McCain and Mark Salter, his friend and aide, share a love of grim, plucky humor.

“Life is darkest,” they like to joke, “just before it turns completely black.”

That would be approximately now.

McCain needs all the pluck (and luck) he can muster to win this presidential race.

As Barack Obama embarks on his global coronation tour, it’s hard to imagine things looking much bleaker for his Republican rival.

McCain thought that by baiting Obama into a tour of Iraq, he’d lure the Democratic contender into a trap.

Indeed it was a trap — for McCain.

The military surge he advocated, and justifiably takes credit for, has worked in Iraq.

But that recent success and stability seems to support Obama’s long-held strategy for the region. He believes it’s time to withdraw troops from Iraq and focus them on Afghanistan, Pakistan, al-Qaida and a resurgent Taliban.

Even the White House, gingerly and reluctantly, seems to agree.

It’s a classic case of “no good deed goes unpunished.” McCain's surge worked, and now he's the political victim.

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Now McCain finds himself floating on a campaign iceberg with two distinct options.

He can either agree that the U.S. has achieved what he insisted on for Iraq — “victory with honor” — or he can argue for continued occupation, against what seems to be the will of the Iraqi government and the desire of those who want to focus on the Taliban.

Obama’s biggest substantive weakness, it’s been said, is his lack of foreign policy and military experience.

But in big-picture terms — though he was wrong about the surge — Obama seems to have a gift of foresight, or at least good fortune.

In politics, they are the same thing.

McCain had better watch out — the only thing worse than the media ignoring you and lionizing your opponent is the media pitying you and painting you as pathetic.

Video: McCain about to name VP? You can’t make up how bad things are going for McCain — and how much he has brought on himself.

He was just trying to be the good ol’ candid candidate a few months back when he said he didn’t know much about economic policy.

Now that he’s assembled a plan for the economy, its contradictions and loopholes are all too evident given the author.

Then the broadcast networks invite McCain to appear on their morning shows, feeling guilty over their anchors-away coverage of Obamapalooza.

So what does he do? He forgets that there’s a country named Iran between Iraq and Pakistan. You can’t make this stuff up.

"We have a lot of work to do and I'm afraid it's a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border,” McCain said on ABC News, effectively wiping Iran off the map.

Maybe nothing he says really matters right now.

The fact is, while Obama is receiving the Brangelina treatment in Europe, you can hear crickets in McCain's America.

I was over at his headquarters the other day — located in a corporate office near the Pentagon in Northern Virginia — and the atmosphere was not, as they say, electric.

Candidate Brain TrustsThere was a relative scarcity of homemade banners and pictures of the candidate, unlike at Obama’s Chicago home base, where the scene is a combination of a suddenly-flush Silicon Valley startup company, a college dorm, and a newsroom on deadline.

Obama’s trip seems to be moving the needle in the Gallup Poll — the candidate has his first statistically significant lead — and according to some calculations, he’s ahead in enough state polls to be close to that magic Electoral College number.

But does McCain still have reason to have, shall we say, The Audacity of Hope?

Yes. And here’s why:

  • A week is a month and a month is a lifetime in politics. This is still July; there is an eternity — three and a half months — until Election Day. And Obama proves this point. Only four short years ago, he was an obscure fellow busily voting “present” in the Illinois legislature.
  • McCain can make some positive news and noise with a good vice presidential selection. There are rumors the move could come as soon as this week, but that would be folly. Most of the media would bury even that story beneath the pictures of Obama addressing a million people in Berlin.
  • The Bush crowd will unite behind McCain (see the photo op with 41), and open their wallets to him — and so will most of the traditional evangelical Christian crowd. Yes Rick Warren is inviting Obama to his church in California (along with McCain), but the titans of broadcast evangelism are an aging and ailing lot, and their flocks are wary of Obama.
  • The physics of the media could help at some point. Having raised Obama so far up the flagpole, the natural instinct of my brethren will be to haul him back down. The mob mentality that has elevated him can also shrink him down to size.
  • If so, McCain can become the fighting underdog. He is the son and grandson of admirals — a prince to the Navy born — but he has faced long odds before, and performs best when facing them, whether in a prison camp or on the campaign trail.
  • Last, and perhaps most importantly, the American people may be repelled at the sight of a man touring the planet in presidential style who has yet to even be nominated by his own party. There is something a little off about Obamapalooza, even if it is not entirely the candidate’s fault. The self-conscious mimicking of J.F.K. can be cloying or even worse. Kennedy went to Berlin in the midst of a Cold War crisis. To stand at the Brandenburg Gate and declare “Ich bin ein Berliner” took enormous guts. Obama has yet to match that fortitude — and he hasn’t been chosen president. However quaint it may seem, voters may want a say in that decision.

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