John McCain fights on

Salena Zito
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Posted: Oct 19, 2008 12:00 AM
John McCain fights on

Never give up, never give in, and never let the pundits decide when your campaign is over.

While the pundits sit at their desks crunching numbers and dial-testing a score of people, Joe Wurzelbacher, the Ohio plumber whose concern over Barack Obama's tax plan became the centerpiece of the last presidential debate, tells a different story.

Wurzelbacher told ABC News after the debate that Obama's tax plan infuriates him: “It's not right for someone to decide you made too much -- that you've done too good, and now we're going to take some of it back.”

Perhaps pundits should start listening more and talking or number-crunching less. Science and stats do not vote, but Wurzelbacher does.

The pundits don’t listen, however. Instead, their echo chamber tells us the election’s over: John McCain lost the debates and all that’s left is for the fat lady to sing. (Of course, they would never say “fat” because that is not politically correct.)

Historically speaking, McCain has never run a great campaign; in fact, he has never run even a good campaign. McCain has gotten to where he is by being John McCain.

He became the Republican presidential nominee on his own terms, and no leg of that journey was pretty.

Now McCain is up against a man who turned the skill set he learned as a community organizer into an perfectly tuned, cash-flush campaign machine. Once again, things are not looking good for McCain.

University of Arkansas political scientist Bob Maranto sees several mistakes McCain has made and he is uncertain if time remains to correct them.

“He should have defined Obama as dangerously liberal last summer,” Maranto says. Since the time to do so is past, he thinks McCain should be pointing out that Obama has never said a good thing about the free-market system.

“Obama has tried to claim credit for non-accomplishments, like writing a single letter two years back saying he was concerned about mortgage lending,” he says. “That's it, a letter. No proposal, no legislation, no nothing.”

Maranto adds that McCain should be pounding Obama for his very liberal voting record, lots of missed votes and lots of “present” votes in the Illinois Legislature -- “basically, a liberal who has accomplished nothing.”

Yet this election is not about tactics so much as it is about toughness.

Every person who will vote already knows the two candidates. Republican strategist David Carney says that, on Election Day, Obama’s base will vote for him and McCain’s base will vote for McCain.

But this is a transformational election year, not a base election year, says Carney. Victory depends on “swingers,” those who have yet to decide, those who will ask themselves on Election Day: “Do I trust my future, my family, to the charismatic, dynamic public official who has yet to put a concrete idea on the table? Or do I go with the man I know will be tough enough -- even if he’s not really willing -- to change completely where the country is going?”

Their conclusions -- not the antics that both campaigns engage in for an attentive political punditry poised over their scorecards -- will determine the election’s outcome.

And until Election Day, McCain will not change. He is who he is and, under the weight of his personality, his stubborn determination and his dedication to country, he always has found a way to prevail, even in the face of defeat.

“One thing that is in John McCain’s favor is that he is John McCain,” says Pennsylvania Republican strategist Charlie Gerow. “Add on the fact that McCain always polls poorly and Obama's primary polls have been consistently inflated, and there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that has become the narrative around this race.”

Gerow thinks this a 5- to 6-point race that Obama still has not won, although he says you’d never know that from the media coverage. “I base my opinions on listening to people,” he insists. “The deal has not been closed yet.”

One-time fierce competitor Mitt Romney, who out-spent and out-organized McCain in Republican primaries, agrees: “It would be a mistake to count out John McCain. I remember when everyone said he was dead and buried during the primaries, but he came roaring back.”

Romney would know: McCain left him behind by the time South Carolina’s primary rolled around, despite never once having the strategy, money or charisma that the former Massachusetts governor possessed.