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The undoing of John McCain
Republican nominee stands to lose more than an election
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The Republicans must be so proud. Not only can they brag about the major achievements of the last eight years - an economy in shambles, an ill-advised and wildly unsuccessful war in Iraq - they are running a presidential campaign that combines bigotry, know-nothingism and statewide efforts to suppress the vote.

This is not the campaign John McCain dreamed about. Once the media's favorite politician, he now seems surly and defensive with reporters. Once an outspoken critic of the "agents of intolerance" on the Christian right, he has done some uncomfortable cozying up to the right-wing ministers who can deliver the fundamentalist base.

But that's just the garden-variety stuff. McCain is working with some of the very handlers he despised for running a dirty primary campaign against him in 2000. That's pretty odious. Worse, for him, their advice doesn't seem to be doing him a lot of good, and it may end up costing him dearly.

The former POW who took pride in never milking his harrowing personal story hasnow recited it so many times he accidentally called an audience in Pennsylvania "my fellow prisoners" instead of "my fellow Americans."

McCain, like John Kerry, has cheapened his own war record by using it so much. In this and other choices he's made as a candidate, he has undermined some of his own best assets.

The "experience" edge McCain had on Obama seems laughable after his choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate. His claim to be a "steady hand on the tiller" is belied by his frantically disorganized reaction to the crumbling economy.

First, as Wall Street panicked and huge investment firms collapsed, he insisted that nothing was wrong. Then he "suspended" his campaign to return to Washington, where he annoyed his colleagues and made a spectacle of himself without making any discernible contribution to the bank bailout. Then he began churning out contradictory statements and corrections of statements on his plans to rescue bad mortgage holders. All the while he kept spouting the same bromides about more tax cuts and more shrinking of government - the very things that got us into this mess in the first place.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama keeps gaining ground. The worse the economy gets, the more people seem to feel that the steadier hand in a crisis is probably Obama, who sounds fluent on the issues and has a lot of smart advisers.

Obama and Biden gave smooth, detailed answers to the questions in recent debates, while McCain and Palin stuck to generalities. In McCain's case, that included repeatedly asserting "I know what to do" to rescue the economy, fight terrorism and win the war in Iraq, without specifics.

Many of McCain's problems can be chalked up to bad advice and candidate gaffes. Conservative pundit William Kristol, who fell madly in love with McCain in 2000, wrote recently that his candidate should fire his entire campaign staff, then make a lot of media appearances to recapture the "happy warrior" magic he once had. But it's too late for that now.

McCain is no naf. After all, he was willing to accept the services of his archenemy, Charlie Condon - theformer South Carolina attorney general who sealed Bush's victory in that state by spreading rumors that McCain's adopted Bangladeshi daughter was his "illegitimate black child."

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that McCain's message has degenerated so badly in the home stretch of the campaign. Going negative seems to be his last hope. The lesson he learned from being slimed in 2000 is that getting nasty is the way to win. And boy, is this campaign getting nasty - in a way McCain himself may no longer be able to control.

The embarrassing false ads that even Karl Rove criticized - about how Obama wants to teach "comprehensive sex ed" to kindergarteners - seem tame compared with recent McCain/Palin rallies. After letting supporters introduce them with jabs at "Barack Hussein Obama," both McCain and Palin can be seen on YouTube addressing crowds of frenzied haters, who yell "treason," "kill him" and "off with his head" when the candidates bring up Obama.

I'd like to think that coming face-to-face with that kind of ugliness might cause McCain to shift gears.

You could see the discomfort on his face when he corrected the woman who said she was "afraid" of Obama because "I think he's an Arab." "He's not," McCain said. Late last week, he finally began inserting a statement in his stump speech about how he "respects" his opponent, which he gave through clenched teeth over the loudly booing crowd.

He knows he is playing with fire.And you can see from the crowd's response that he has started something he can no longer stop. By working toconnect Obama'smiddle name,his acquaintance with a 1960s radical and the idea that, in Palin's words, he "pals around with terrorists," McCain let his campaign send out some not-so-subtle signals.

Win or lose, McCain had better hope he's not remembered as the candidate whose dirty campaign tactics helped bring the country to a tragic new low.

Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.

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