The New McCain

Washington Matters

The New McCain

The John McCain on the campaign trail these days is quite different from the one who voters really got to know during his battle against George Bush in 2000 and even during the primaries this year. McCain not only avoided personal attacks on his opponents, but denounced them. No longer.

I could almost buy the nastier tactics if there was evidence they worked. But so far McCain just seems to be falling further behind.

Ever since the McCain campaign started baring sharper teeth over the weekend, Barack Obama has steadily gained strength in the polls. As of Friday, he held a 10-point lead over McCain in Gallup's tracking poll.

While any struggling candidate wants to go down swinging, there's fighting and fighting dirty -- and I can't help but think that if McCain keeps heading in this direction he will regret changing forever his image as a principled straight-talker who was willing to risk losing rather than run a tainted campaign. That's the McCain who sharply denounced Cincinnati radio talk show host Bill Cunningham in February when Cunningham twice referred to Barack Hussein Obama -- with special emphasis on Hussein -- while introducing McCain. McCain went before the cameras after the rally to say he wouldn't tolerate "anything in this campaign that denigrates" Obama or then-potential-opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton. Using Obama's middle name is clearly a way of trying to cast Obama as an "other" -- although Obama is a Christian, it is a Muslim name in honor of his Muslim father. But repeating it with scorn reminds voters that the name is shared with the despised Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein -- a tactic that McCain clearly rejected earlier in the year.

But at least twice this week speakers at rallies for McCain or running-mate Sarah Palin have used the same tactic even more liberally and McCain has said nothing, although his campaign issued a relatively weak-kneed criticism from an aide who couldn't resist using the opportunity to take another swipe at Obama: "We do not condone this inappropriate rhetoric, which distracts from the real questions of judgment, character and experience that voters will base their decisions on this November."

To me, though, what's far worse is that McCain and Palin have said nothing about shouts at rallies of "terrorist" or "treason" when they have attacked Obama. Perhaps they could be excused for not responding immediately the first time this occurred because they were taken aback or simply didn't hear it. But to not say something after the fact or to be on the alert for such remarks in future rallies and to have a sharp rebuke in their pockets is simply wrong. Especially for a campaign that has made the return of civility to politics -- and bipartisan cooperation -- a supposed hallmark of a McCain administration.

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