Tonight could be the beginning of the end, for John McCain. The polls are slipping away, the media are no longer his allies, and his embarrassing political stunts are so obviously embarrassing political stunts that no one with even a shred of remaining credibility is even bothering to attempt to defend them. Or him. His best chance to win this election was that the media would spin the debates as wins for him and a tie for Sarah Palin. In both cases, such would have followed their model with Bush. And while the bars definitely have been lowered, it no longer seems plausible that either the media or the public will buy McCain's posturing unless he offers some clear and compelling ideas; and if there's anything we know for certain about John McCain, it's that he is incapable of even conceiving a clear and compelling idea. It also no longer seems plausible that if Palin succeeds in pronouncing foreign leaders' names, the media will declare her up to the task of working with, negotiating with, or confronting them. Nothing should surprise us, and the implausible may yet come to be, but what now seems likely is that the debates will be judged and spun on something at least close to a fair standard; and if such is the case, the recent uptick in the polls for the Obama-Biden ticket should coalesce into a legitimate rout. What had looked like 2000 or 2004 could come to resemble 1996.
The key for Obama, tonight, is to play it low key. We already know he'll be the smartest guy in the room, and we also already know he can talk circles around McCain, particularly on substance and detail. But we also already know that what the pundits most despise is for a presidential candidate to talk over their heads, or down to them. Adults may like the idea of having a president who is smarter and more informed than they, but the pundits are desperate to believe that they are uniquely smart and informed, despite years of abundant proof that they are not even minimally either. So, Obama needs to relax, know his audience, and also know that the voters are desperate for a president who knows what he's doing. Even if the pundits aren't quite sure what that means.
John McCain is reeling and desperate. His Palin gambit and his ridiculous games of the past week have been revelatory about his instinctive reactions when cornered. He is not the hero of four long decades ago. He abuses and demeans his own legend, and could probably stand to read his own books. While watching the debate, if you try to play a drinking game based on the number of times McCain refers to his having been a P.O.W., you likely won't be conscious by the first commercial. He will talk tough, he will feign the wisdom of experience, and he will talk in cartoon simplicities. He will hope that the voters haven't learned anything in the past several years. But the evidence suggests that many have.
Beginning tomorrow, the campaign will enter its final stage. It could enter its dirtiest stage. McCain will have to decide whether he wants to attempt the Nixon/Atwater model, or salvage a little dignity by going out with class.