Video: Sen. John McCain: ‘I love our underdog status’

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updated 10/1/2008 11:19:20 AM ET 2008-10-01T15:19:20
ANALYSIS

Welcome to October. Tenth month in the Gregorian calendar. Known for its yellow leaves, orange pumpkins, white-knuckled campaign staffers... and red-phone political "surprises."

Ah, the vaunted October surprise. The words alone evoke titillating images of tabloid-style headlines, wild-eyed pundits, tongue-tied candidates and tracking polls brimming with volatility. Late in the 2000 campaign, you'll recall, George W. Bush's 24-year-old DUI arrest record surfaced and nearly cost him the race. Four years later, Osama bin Laden released his "I'm still here" videotape, helping guarantee Bush's narrow re-election win.

But not this month, I'd bet. Not this year.

There's a certain irony, during the 21st month of this campaign, in suggesting that a "surprise" is even remotely possible. Given the ongoing crisis on Wall Street, however, the bigger factor is that voters wouldn't go for it.

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Unfortunately for those who love the rush that flows when that last-minute game-changer breaks -- and really, who doesn't? -- voters have placed a premium on calm in this race's final crisis-ridden month. For the first time since the months that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, there's a palpable, sober disdain for self-inflicted drama. Lipstick, pigs, pregnant daughters and terrorist fist-jabs have no place here now. The real-life drama unfolding on our TV screens has turned voters into knee-jerk skeptics, which makes me fairly certain that neither camp will dare yell "Surprise!" before Nov. 4. The backlash would prove stronger than the lash.

It's a lesson John McCain's campaign learned the hard way last week. His September Suspension, designed to change a trajectory that showed Barack Obama starting to build a solid front-runner's hold on the race, instead may have sealed his fate. Last week turned into a debacle that he'll be hard-pressed to reverse over the next five weeks.

The problem, in hindsight, was simple: Voters just didn't buy it. A new USA Today/Gallup poll taken over the weekend shows that McCain fared far worse than Obama in handling the economic crisis and congressional negotiations over the bailout plan. Forty-six percent of respondents viewed Obama's performance favorably, 43 percent viewed it unfavorably. For McCain, the numbers were particularly daunting: 37 percent approved, while 53 percent disapproved. Congressional leaders both Democratic and Republican, along with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson Jr. and President Bush, also fared poorly.

It got worse for McCain. A New York Times/CBS News poll [PDF] released last week showed his overall favorable ratings plunging 6 percentage points in less than two weeks. The Hotline/Diageo poll [PDF] showed that the percentage of voters who think McCain is better prepared than Obama to handle the economy fell 9 points in four days, from 43 percent [PDF] on Sept. 22 to 34 percent on Sept. 26 (he has since rebounded to 38 percent). Meanwhile the enthusiasm gap, which had narrowed following McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, widened again; the percentage of voters who said they're "enthusiastically" supporting the GOP ticket fell 6 points in four days.

A big part of McCain's problem -- both in this crisis and throughout this campaign -- is that big "R" next to his name. A new ABC News/Washington Post pollshows voters blame congressional Republicans instead of Democrats for the crisis, by a 44-to-21 split. One-quarter of respondents said Bush was responsible -- compared with just 8 percent who say it's the fault of the Democrat-led Congress.

All of which raises a key question: Will the most fascinating White House campaign in decades be decided by the second-most-important political story of the year?

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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