McCain’s decision to use Tuesday’s debate to roll out a dramatic new housing plan – and to downplay an extended weekend of personal attacks on Obama – appeared to mark a recognition that, after two consecutive days of the Dow plummeting and financial hemorrhaging abroad, the market meltdown is not likely to move from the center of the campaign.
After days of attempts to persuade voters that Obama’s ties to ‘60s radical Bill Ayers are a crucial character issue, McCain didn’t mention Ayers’ name during the 90 minutes of Tuesday’s forum. His top aides suggested afterward that, going forward, the candidate wouldn’t focus on the former domestic terrorist nor invoke the name of Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Nicolle Wallace, a top McCain adviser, hinted McCain would not bring it up. “If asked about it, of course [he’ll talk about Ayers],” she said.
McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt all but said the controversial pastor remained off-limits.
“What Sen. McCain has said is that it’s not an issue he intends to talk about in the race,” said the aide, though he did note that Obama himself had called Wright 'fair game.'
But Schmidt did say without prompting: “You’ve not seen Sen. McCain advertise on [Wright]."
When asked, he wouldn’t promise to not air ads on the pastor, but reiterated that “Sen. McCain’s position is clear.”
It’s no mystery why McCain is easing back on, or withholding entirely, such character-based assaults: Even with the $700 billion rescue plan signed into law, the economic crisis appears to be worsening not stabilizing.
“As long as the Dow is down 500 points a day, that's going to push a lot of the Rezko and Ayers stuff off the front pages,” acknowledged a Republican National Committee official.
Instead, McCain used the debate to unexpectedly propose, what amounts to a homeowner buyout, laying out a plan for the federal government to purchase mortgages and help Americans renegotiate their financing at a fixed rate.
McCain’s plan reflects the continued demand that both candidates do more to address the economic crisis. It also offers McCain, who has been criticized for having little in the way of an economic plan, a substantive idea to hold up in the remaining days of the race on an issue that has done considerable damage to his campaign.
Obama’s aides welcomed the turn, and argued that the contest is now squarely on what they consider their turf. Obama advisor Robert Gibbs said the campaign would continue to attack McCain’s plan on health care, and might use a section of an exchange on health insurance from Tuesday’s debate to do it.
A campaign centered on the economy plays to a traditional Democratic strength, and Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said he even looked forward to a sometimes-troublesome aspect of that argument for Democrats.
“We are winning the tax discussion in the battleground states,” he said. “We relish the opportunity to talk about taxes.”
Both candidates will spend the coming days on the electoral offense, visiting states that the other party won in 2004. McCain and Sarah Palin will be in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while Obama heads to Ohio and Indiana. McCain will also visit Minnesota, where a Republican official bragged that Obama had recently been forced to buy television ads.
But the GOP ticket will also return to red states, as well, where they’re being forced to scramble to buy TV time and schedule rallies. McCain and Palin will make a stop in Ohio this week and returnto Virginia for the first time in a month next Monday.
Operatives on both sides, meanwhile, said they expect Obama to continue to outspend McCain, if not as heavily as he has in the past week.
“The Obama campaign has a ton of money, and that allows them to outspend us,” said McCain political director Mike DuHaime, who said McCain didn’t need to “match them dollar for dollar,” just to “get our message out there.”
Obama aides said they are particularly pleased to have forced McCain to compete in the expensive state of Florida, where McCain has spent little money and trails in some recent polls. Now McCain may be forced to devote a substantial share of his limited resources there.
In the same vein, the RNC's independent arm announced Tuesday that it would expand its multi-million ad campaign to Florida and North Carolina, two red states Palin has visited in recent days in an effort to keep them in GOP hands.
“We need to move the race five or six points in 28 days,” said McCain advisor Charlie Black.
Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, said his party needed only to avoid mistakes and that steadiness would soon spell victory for Obama.
“He just needs to continue to keep a steady hand on the rudder,” Bredesen said.