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Column: McCain's Risk-taking The Only Reliable Thing About Him

This story was written by William Martin, Brown Daily Herald

John McCain is a gambling man through and through. In a Sept. 27 story, The New York Times catalogued his labyrinthine connections to American casino interests, along with legislative efforts that have earned him a place among "the founding fathers of Indian gaming."

These ties are a sardonic reflection of McCain's consistent penchant for risk-taking. It's a habit that impelled both his climbing poll numbers in early September and his more recent slump.

McCain's distaste for the safe choice has been on central display throughout this presidential race. After anemic fundraising nearly scuttled his campaign last summer, McCain chose to soldier on with a decimated political team.

He also cultivated a uniquely antagonistic relationship with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, lashing him as a political opportunist who "changed (his) position on even-numbered years."

Both of these gambles paid off handsomely. The senator's scrappy, low-budget operation allowed him to cash in on his reputation as a maverick and an outsider even as he merged into the Republican herd -- signing off on waterboarding and embracing a more enforcement-oriented approach to illegal immigration.

McCain's bouts with Romney also increased his visibility while giving him an easy target: a newly minted conservative who never overcame the credibility gap built up by his wooden performances, corporate background and record of liberal stances.

Over the past few weeks McCain has rolled the dice on an unprecedented scale -- likely motivated by his earlier successes and the recent ascendance within the campaign of Steve Schmidt, a protege of Karl Rove whose instinct-driven approach complements his boss's impulsiveness.

McCain's surprise vice-presidential nominee was initially a smash hit -- a woman to woo wavering Clintonites, a staunch conservative to offset McCain's tense relationship with the religious right and an iconic ruralite to reinforce the campaign's indispensable undercurrents of xenophobia and cultural populism.

But Sarah Palin has proven to be her own worst enemy. Her slew of scandals continues to generate headlines, and her claim to foreign policy expertise based solely on Alaska's proximity to Russia is an enduring embarrassment.

America has taken notice, and Palin's unexpectedly non-cataclysmic performance last Thursday is unlikely to help her case: Viewers of the debate were twice as likely to say that Joe Biden is qualified for the vice presidency.

McCain's next gamble was a series of caustic and highly inaccurate advertisements. The most notorious of the lot claimed that Obama had supported "comprehensive sex education" for kindergartners. The bill had actually aimed to protect young children from pedophiles by teaching them what constituted molestation.

The backlash was severe. Even Karl Rove, a man not noted for his honesty or restraint, declared that McCain's onslaught had "gone one step too far."

But McCain is an addict, and his habit once again cost him dearly. With financial markets roiling, he declared a suspension of his campaign and called for delaying the first presidential debate so that he could return to Washington and help hammer out a bailout deal.

Ideally, this would have framed McCain as an unselfish leader, ready to let his political fortunes suffer in order to spearhead a critical piece of legislation. But McCain made little attempt to shape the financial bailout plan: Barney Frank, the House's lead negotiator for the legislation, called him "irrelevant to the whole process."

On top of that humiliation, McCain was forced to go ahead with the debate, in the face of massive pubic opposition to his proposed postponement.

Now, after a fleeting few weeks ahead in the polls, he is down by a larger margin than ever, thanks to his own gambles as well as Wall Street's.

Barack Obama has provided a stark contrast to his opponent's wild flailing, with a prevailing strategy of caution and reaction.

Sometimes it hurts him, as when he knuckled under to conventional wisdom and declared that the influx of troops into Iraq in 2007 had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." Sometimes it benefits him: He was able to sneak in a barrage of inaccurate ads largely under the media radar after McCain's more extravagant mid-September smear binge.

Beyond personal style, caution is a luxury that Obama enjoys as the nominee of this cycle's favored party. His rival is fighting the odds as a Republican and has dug himself into a hole with his latest wagering spree.

McCain has already returned to his signature tactic: raise the stakes and damn the torpedoes. His campaign is renewing its emphasis on character attacks, hoping that mistrust can wear down Obama's current advantage.

In light of Americans' more concrete concerns, this isn't likely to work. But it's surely not the last card up McCain's sleeve. So for the next month -- and just maybe the next four to eight years -- look out for more reckless, audacious and even desperate high-profile maneuvers from John McCain.

Expect the unexpected. With McCain, that's the only safe bet.