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McCain's gambit gambit

It's been one dramatic move after another for the Republican nominee. Up next, rescuing the economy.
/ Source: National Journal

The nation's frail economy was trapped in a burning building the other day, vast plumes of smoke climbing high into the night. John McCain raced to the scene of the fire, rolled up his sleeves, wiped the sweat from his furrowed brow, summoned his inner hero, kissed his wife and plunged headfirst into the blaze. Minutes later, The Maverick emerged. "The economy," Wolf Blitzer announced to the viewing audience, "appears slightly charred... but safe, nestled in a blanket, wrapped in John McCain's arms."

A spectacular moment in cable TV history? Nah, just another day in the McCain campaign, which increasingly is dedicating its time, and the country's, to a curious series of political stunts designed to... well, I'm not entirely sure what they're designed to do. Mostly, it just depends on the day.

Barack Obama is, of course, guilty of pulling his own share of gimmicky moves. His globe-trotting tour in July and his convention acceptance speech in Denver were, to many, over-the-top shows of hubris. But McCain's campaign seems to thrive on them.

His latest move came Wednesday when, citing the "historic crisis" in the nation's economy, he suspended his entire campaign and urged Obama to join him in postponing their debate, set for Friday in Mississippi. On the same day that the Washington Post/ABC News poll showed him trailing Obama by the biggest margin since early this summer, McCain sought to stage a game-changer. Aiming to force Obama to either follow his lead or appear overly political in a time of crisis, McCain made his "Dramatic Move," as CNN's ticker described it. (Technically, Obama initiated the conversation with McCain about putting politics aside to focus on the economy earlier in the day, but that's beside the point. McCain made it to the TV cameras first.)

"It's the longest Hail Mary pass in the history of either football or Marys," House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank said, as only he could.

The entire thing felt, somewhat ironically, like Bob Dole's decision in 1996 to resign his Senate seat and focus on a struggling presidential campaign, which he said "would take me to the White House or home to Russell, Kansas." (Or, you know, to his condo at the Watergate.) While Dole was sending the opposite message (that he'd rather focus on campaign politics than his Senate duties), both moves conveyed the notion that they couldn't handle too many big tasks at once. And both moves felt gimmicky.

For Dole, however, it was a one-time ploy, one that didn't pay off. For McCain, it's part of a comprehensive campaign strategy, one that can be traced back to April 15 (tax day!), when he first proposed a gas-tax holiday. In late July, he launched the now-famous "Celeb" TV ad comparing Obama to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. On the first night of the Democratic convention in Denver, sulking Hillary Rodham Clinton supporters were invited to attend a McCain-sponsored "Happy Hour for Hillary." The same week, shortly after the Russian invasion of Georgia, the campaign inexplicably sent Cindy McCain to Tbilisi to meet with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and assess the situation.

But the campaign's strategy has intensified recently, from the "lipstick on a pig" debacle... to McCain's call to fire Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Christopher Cox... to a conference call attacking the New York Times for its reports on campaign manager Rick Davis' ties to Freddie Mac (but, notably, not Newsweek or Roll Call, which published similar reporting)... to Sarah Palin's series of on-camera, off-the-record meetings with world leaders at the United Nations.

Here's the most substantive pool report from Palin's trip to New York:

"What is his name?" Palin asked Afghan President Hamid Karzai of his son, born last year.

"Mirwais," Karzai responded. "Mirwais, which means 'the light of the house.'"

"Oh, nice," Palin responded.

"He is the only one we have," remarked Karzai.

At this point, the pool was hustled out of the room and down to the hotel lobby. The pool was in the room for a grand total of... 29 seconds.

Politics is, of course, a game of perception, one in which gambits like these can play a prominent and sometimes legitimate role. Candidates stage them because they work and, in desperate times, they can work miracles. But McCain's "red cell" strategy is a particularly peculiar one; his entire campaign is based on the argument that strong character, stability and experience should trump the hocus-pocus hooey of hope that Obama is trying to sell. The stunts undermine his ability to advance his own argument.