McCain Sees His Chances Slip Away

You can count them on one hand. Alabama, Kansas, Georgia and South Carolina. Every morning, lists all the public polls, both state and national, released that day. Since Saturday, John McCain has been behind in every single national poll. He has also been behind in every major swing state. He’s down by double digits in Pennsylvania and Virginia, down by 13 in New Mexico, down by 10 in Virginia.

The “safe” states for McCain are few and far between, and not even close to a majority in the electoral college.

McCain’s defenders call it a “mid-single digit” deficit. Presidential elections don’t work like horsehoes. A “mid-single digit” defeat means you get clobbered. A “high-single digit” defeat means a landslide.

Right now, the race is somewhere between clobbered and landslide, somewhere between 1988 (seven points/clobbered) and 1980 (nine points/landslide). Not close. Not pretty.

Wednesday night was John McCain’s last big chance to change things. It was the last moment that a significant percentage of Americans will tune in to see the two candidates. It was the last chance for McCain to take on Barack Obama on an even playing field.

Starting Thursday, and for the 18 days that follow, Obama will be outspending McCain everywhere that matters by 2-1 or 3-1 – or more. Starting Thursday, Republicans everywhere will be covering their rear ends, trying to make sure that they are not swept up in what looks like a wave; trying to cut their losses, avoid taking people with them.

Starting Thursday, you put the money where it will help the down-ticket races. We all know what the last days of a losing campaign look like. Been there, done that. Not pretty.

Wednesday night was McCain’s last best chance to avoid triage. He needed to make something happen. He didn’t. Wednesday night was not a “game-changer.” Don’t take my word for it. Ask Republican Mike Huckabee. He said it, and he’s right.

Joe the Plumber may be the new icon of the campaign, but Obama’s comment that we need to “spread the wealth around” is not going to cost him this election. It’s not that kind of year. It’s the kind of year where people who never worry are worried, where economic insecurity is rampant, where the problem is not too much government but not enough. By all means spread the wealth around, if there is any to spread around.

Maybe there was nothing McCain could have said to change things. Maybe the die was cast when the housing bubble exploded, when the Dow dropped, when the credit market froze. It may well be that we’ll look back and say, as we did in 1980, that thinking this would be a close election was a denial of economic reality; that all people needed was the barest reassurance that it was safe to say no to the incumbent party, and the party was over.

Maybe we’ll say that no matter who McCain picked, or how much he raised, or what he did, the end would have been the same, that Mitt Romney could not have done any better, in the first or second spot; that that when the percentage of Americans who think the country is heading on the right track is in the single digits, a single-digit defeat is the best the incumbent party can expect.

The Republican talking heads are all saying that McCain “won” on Wednesday night. What they mean is that they liked what they heard. As well they should. McCain played to his base on Wednesday night, and played hard. He played to avoid having the floor fall out from under him. He played for a single-digit defeat, not a victory.

October is not the time to play to your base. October is not the time for liberals to be proud of being liberals, or conservatives to be proud of being conservatives. That’s August. September, latest.

October is the time for Democrats to point out that abortion is a difficult issue, that reasonable people can disagree; that’s what Obama did Wednesday night. He was playing to the middle, because his base is secure.

As Jimmy Carter once said, life isn’t fair. It isn’t. Hillary Clinton supporters now understand that all that stood between her and the White House was a failed caucus strategy; that she, too, could have beaten John McCain, and would have.

True enough. John McCain supporters, particularly those who were with him eight years ago, must be pained by the realization that the man who beat them, slammed them, threw mud at them then is costing their man the election now. Wednesday night, at long last, John McCain insisted that he wasn’t George Bush, that if Barack Obama wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run four years ago.

It was a good line. It was a long overdue effort to draw a line in the sand. But it doesn’t work. Politics is not about fairness.

It may not be George Bush’s fault that the economy is in the toilet, but it happened on his watch. He would have taken credit for peace and prosperity. So he gets blamed for their absence. And so does his party, and its new leader. Live by the sword and die by the sword, even if it’s someone else’s sword.

Barack Obama is a very lucky guy. But it is also the case that he made his luck. The fat lady has yet to sing, but she is definitely getting ready.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for