Barack Obama just had the worst week since his beloved pastor, Jeremiah Wright, decided to expatiate on black liberation theology at the National Press Club.
Coming off his royal progress through the Near and Middle East, Berlin, Paris and London, Barack had surged to a nine-point lead in the Gallup tracking poll. By Friday, he was back to a dead heat with a 72-year-old opponent with none of his natural skills, in a year when grocers are pulling Republican brands off the shelves.
For all its gracelessness, the McCain campaign, given openings by Barack, stepped in and put Muhammad Ali on the canvas.
The first opening was the clumsiness with which Barack dealt with a planned visit to wounded U.S. troops in Landshul, Germany.
While the first half of his foreign trip, to Afghanistan and Iraq, was official, the European tour was campaign related. Yet, it was on this leg that a visit to wounded U.S. soldiers had been scheduled. As campaigning in a military hospital is prohibited, the visit was canceled.
But, instead of going ahead and visiting the troops alone, without aides, press or cameras, Barack bailed out and flew on to Paris.
This left the McCain folks an opening to paint Obama as a cold-hearted opportunist avid to visit a military hospital only if he could bring in press and cameras to record his compassion.
Enraged Obama aides savagely accused McCain of running a dishonorable campaign. This reflex reaction, and the ugly brawl that ensued, made some Americans think less of Obama, but many more forget what a success his foreign trip had been.
Came then the Paris-Britney ad. This opens with shots of the wayward blondes, then of Barack, presuming to equate the three as vacuous, insubstantial and aimless. Purpose: Disparage Barack's rock-star popularity and turn it into something laughable.
While the ad seemed both defensive and non-credible, too much of a stretch to be believed -- even Republicans derided it as "childish" -- it apparently acted as something of a matador's cape snapped in front of an already tormented Obama.
Stung, Barack retorted: "What they're going to try is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough. He's got a funny name. You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills you know. He's risky."
Barack was accusing the McCain campaign of implying he is risky because he is black.
This was the opening Rick Davis of McCain's campaign needed to deliver a vicious uppercut to Obama's jaw, charging him with "playing the race card ... from the bottom of the deck." Added Davis, this was "divisive, negative, shameful and wrong." McCain, sadly, agreed.
With that, both benches cleared.
Saturday, Bob Herbert of The New York Times charged McCain and the Republican Party with producing ads that are "slimy ... foul, poisonous ... designed to exploit the hostility, anxiety and resentment of the many white Americans who are still freakishly hung up on the idea of black men rising above their station and becoming sexually involved with white women."
Sunday, Gene Robinson of The Washington Post accused McCain of "running a desperate, ugly campaign."
The Britney-Paris ad calling Obama "the biggest celebrity in the world" was an attempt to "turn Obama's popularity into a flaw."
Now, undeniably, McCain's ad was designed to minimize and mock Obama's popularity as a modern form of Beatlemania.
But what is wrong with that?
On the weekend, the McCain folks released another ad. Called "The One," it features Barack's grandiose pronouncements about who he is, what he means to mankind and the marvelous miracles that await our messiah's arrival -- and twins him with Moses (Charlton Heston) parting the Red Sea in "The Ten Commandments."
The effectiveness of the ad is that people laugh with it, and so doing, laugh at the perceived pretentiousness of Barack Obama.
In a week, Barack, an object of media homage on his trip abroad, has become an object of mockery in much of Middle America. Though his media allies may howl racism, most Americans tend more and more to dismiss this. That card has been played so often it's dog-eared.
And Barack's raising the race issue anew seems suicidal. When one is winning the black vote 94 to 1, does it make sense to keep pushing into the face of the 87 percent of Americans who are Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian that the next president will definitely not be one of you?
When JFK's polls showed him sweeping 80 percent of Catholics, he did not whistle-stop through the Bible Belt, billing himself as our "first Roman Catholic president." He sent Lyndon and Lady Bird on a Dixie special to talk about JFK's war record and rake Richard Nixon.
Thus did he become our first Catholic president. If Barack wishes to be our first black president, he will tell his friends to stop bellowing and braying every day about it.