McCain has a higher natural toughness quotient than Hillary. But he has never spoken persuasively to economic concerns, which -- for all the focus on the Middle East -- will predominate this year. As Obama dazzled overseas, McCain's campaign made a feint toward frontally engaging him in the economic debate, hitting him with a negative ad on his opposition to domestic drilling.
It is necessary, but not enough, to take these kinds of shots at Obama. McCain's campaign needs a unifying theme, and one less abstract than "country first." Here again, he should take a page from Hillary, offering a conservative version of her occasional theme of a "fighter for you." In particular, he should be fighting for middle-class Americans against ineffectual government and tax-and-spend liberalism.
McCain has to give voice to the anger and frustration of the American public. He has to complain that Washington is broken and argue that both parties have let voters down. In 2000, he was the feisty -- even angry -- crusader against Washington and the status quo. He needs to find that old populist mojo again.
The fighter theme would tap into the public mood of disenchantment with Washington and politics. It would suit McCain, who is at his best when expressing an outraged irascibility. It would be in keeping with an aggressive anti-Obama campaign. And it would communicate a certain vigor, perhaps mitigating concerns about his age.
But it must be harnessed in a tight, hard-hitting campaign uncharacteristic of McCain. This year, simply letting McCain be McCain is a formula for failure.