Steve Chapman

DAVENPORT, IOWA -- If the presidential campaign were the lead-up to a World Wrestling Entertainment smackdown, John McCain would be winning. A former high-school wrestler, he's been making the most of the chance to show his withering contempt for the other guy.

At a town hall meeting on Friday in Wisconsin, McCain had taken a surprising tack. When a woman in the audience said that Barack Obama "is an Arab" (presumably meaning "Muslim"), McCain said it wasn't so. Responding to a questioner who was "scared" by Obama, McCain assured him, "Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don't have to be scared of as president of the United States" -- a statement that sparked boos.

Today, McCain is intent on making sure any boos are directed at his opponent. He slams him for voting for pork barrel projects, planning to raise taxes and "insider dealing."

That's just a warmup for his most contemptuous jibe. "He's even questioned my truthfulness," says McCain, his voice marinated in acid, "and let me reply in the plainest terms I know: I don't need lessons on telling the truth to the American people, and were I ever to need any improvement in that regard, I probably wouldn't seek it from a Chicago politician."

Of course many voters may think there is no important ethical difference between a Chicago politician and a Washington politician, which is what McCain has been for more than a quarter of a century. The accusations of dissembling have come not only from the Obama campaign, but from independent monitors that even McCain invokes when convenient.

And if the GOP campaign is trying to distance itself from those who harbor dark suspicions about Obama's religion, someone didn't get the memo. Before McCain's arrival at today's rally, a local clergyman delivered an invocation that instructed the Almighty on His handling of the coming election.

"There are millions of people around this world praying to their god -- whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah -- that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons," said Rev. Arnold Conrad. "And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation because they're going to think that their god is bigger than you if that happens."

No one seems to think it's strange or inappropriate to portray the election as a choice between Jehovah and Allah. Maybe the audience is too busy pondering some discomfiting questions: If McCain loses, is it because God wanted him to lose? Or is it because one of those other gods is running the show?

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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