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?
This hostile note is in keeping with the tone struck by the candidate. Several senators, including some in his own party, have complained of his explosive temper, and he has even acknowledged that his hothead reputation has some basis. But today, McCain is advertising it as an asset during a time of economic trouble. He sounds madder than John Edwards on a bad hair day.
"One thing I hear from Americans at every stop is that they're angry," he says. "They're angry. THEY'RE ANGRY." He then lists the things they are angry about, including the failures of Wall Street. "You're angry," he declares, "and I'm angry too." But he sounds more like someone hacked off about trailing in the polls rather than someone infuriated by what he calls "greed, corruption and incompetence."
Part of the problem is that Republicans can't really bring off denunciations of greed. Ordinarily, they treat it, with sound insight, not as a mortal sin but as a powerful natural drive that capitalism harnesses for the benefit of all.
They are more convincing when excoriating governmental failure. This time, that's also a problematic sell, since the failures of the past eight years are generally blamed, fairly or not, on a president who heads McCain's own party.
But the real question McCain's performance raises is this: Assuming Americans are mad, does that mean they are looking for a president who revels in his anger? Right now a lot of people are feeling scared, bewildered and even lost. But rather than seek a leader who shares those feelings, they probably would like one who can alleviate them.
If voters want a president who is angry, McCain may win. If they prefer a president who will remove the causes of their anger, his exhibition of outrage will encourage them to look elsewhere.
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