Image: John McCain
Gerald Herbert  /  AP
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is suggesting that he'll unveil a tougher side at the second presidential debate Tuesday night in Nashville.
updated 10/7/2008 12:57:06 PM ET 2008-10-07T16:57:06

Structurally, Barack Obama's advantage seems insurmountable. Not only are voters disproportionately opposed to voting for anyone with an "R" after his name, but the overwhelming focus on a suffering economy makes it very, very hard for John McCain to change the subject. Voters who are spooked by the Dow's plunge and talk of Depression-like scenarios aren't likely to let the subject drop.

The question McCain now faces is: Did last week's $700 billion bailout and its shockwaves tip cross-pressured voters -- those who want a change but are unsure if Obama's is the kind they want -- decisively to Obama's side? Or are they still open to persuasion?

McCain isn't going to simply sit around hoping they are. Instead, he's getting more aggressive -- even suggesting he'll unveil a tougher side at Tuesday's debate. The goal: present Obama as an "unsafe" choice for change.

Sarah Palin announced this weekend that she's "taking the gloves off," going after Obama for his past association with former Weather Underground member William Ayers. Expect to see Tony Rezko back in the news as well. Of course, neither man is a household name -- in the case of Ayers, not only was Obama was just a kid during the Vietnam War, but most voters under 45 can't relate to the events of those times.

But what about the most obvious controversial figure in Obama's life, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? Given that McCain announced earlier this year that it was inappropriate for the North Carolina GOP to address the Wright controversy in ads, it's not surprising that his campaign has mostly left the issue alone. It is surprising, however, that we haven't seen any outside group bring him up. Yet.

Video: NBC/WSJ poll: Obama widens lead In a year where voters say they're tired of politics as usual, McCain is taking a big risk in launching a campaign that focuses on typical attacks. While he enters this stage of the race with high approval ratings -- 54 percent -- we've seen that they can dip when he's in trouble. McCain's decision to suspend his campaign in order to work on what was ultimately a failed first attempt at a congressional bailout package took a toll on his ratings. On Sept. 30, he went under 50 percent [PDF] for the first time and his unfavorable rating hit 44 percent.

Favorable ratings, however, don't always translate to votes. According to Diageo/Hotline polling data from Sept. 2-30, just 72 percent of those who rate McCain favorably say they are voting for him. That compares with 82 percent for Obama. In launching a more focused attack on Obama's judgment, he may indeed see his favorable ratings drop, but he's also hoping to bring Obama's down at the same rate. The last couple of weeks have been a referendum on McCain and on the Bush administration; McCain needs to make it a referendum on Obama.

In doing so, McCain can try to accomplish the other objective of campaign attacks: deflating the other side's voters so they don't turn out on Election Day. Remember, Obama's coalition is made up of lots of young and newly registered voters, neither a traditionally reliable voting bloc -- especially if they feel they've lost their connection to the candidate or the cause.

This is where the enthusiasm gap comes into play. Obama has an 18-point advantage over McCain among voters who say they are very enthusiastic to vote for their candidate (59 percent to 41 percent). This suggests that it may be tougher for McCain's attacks to succeed and may also serve to depress his own less-than-fired-up voters.

The next question is if the new round of attacks on a "risky" and "dangerous" Obama will move white voters over to McCain. At this point, Obama is basically where John Kerry ended up in 2004 among white voters. Among white men, Obama's getting 41 percent of the vote; Kerry took 37 percent. Among white women, Kerry took 44 percent; Obama's at 43 percent. What's more important is that McCain is dramatically underperforming among whites. President Bush took 62 percent of white men, while McCain's getting just 49 percent. Bush took 55 percent of white women; McCain is at 46 percent.

Even so, while Obama leads McCain on the question of which candidate best understands voters' needs and priorities -- 51 percent to 36 percent -- it's just a 2-point lead among white voters. McCain has room to grow, while Obama may be at his ceiling. These are the voters to watch over the next couple of weeks.

In the end, it's clear that McCain has no choice but to attack. He can no longer count on Obama to make some sort of mistake, or for the political atmosphere to suddenly turn his way. He's facing a political environment that is on the verge of swallowing him. Obama's response, however, will also be critical. With so many white voters still undecided, he can't afford to let these attacks go unanswered. Yet if he goes directly into counter-attack mode, he risks moving the debate off the one subject that really helps him -- the deepening frustration with the country's economic situation.


Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: Gregory: McCain camp wants to focus on Obama's character


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