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John McCain: The Second Coming of Bob Dole

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"Prominent Republicans...have been for the first time openly critical" of their candidate's "floundering campaign."

The "forces of inertia, arrogance and self-denial will probably conspire to keep the Republican establishment circling the wagons" around him, but his "yawning credibility gap" will result in "a spectacular defeat in November."

"Nearly half of those who plan to vote for him in November expect him to lose."

Someone being tough on John McCain?

Actually, I wrote all of the above about Bob Dole during his 1996 presidential campaign. But it fits John McCain like a glove, right down to his "shrunken vision for the greatest nation on earth" -- as I wrote about Dole on October 7, 1996.

An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released last week asked the question, "Who do you think will win?" The answer: Barack Obama 54; John McCain 30. Obama is unlikely to win in such a landslide, which means that millions planning to vote for McCain expect him to lose -- as was the case with Dole.

An already desperate McCain tried to make news last week by comparing Barack Obama to Jimmy Carter, but McCain should be careful about forcing people to make comparisons to ill-fated campaigns of the past.

As was the case in '96, we have a Republican nominee who is a war hero wounded in sacrifice for his country, personable and engaging, with a long Senate career, who is so out of sync with the times that his campaign feels stillborn. It's Doleja vu all over again.

As happened with Dole, prominent Republicans are already being openly critical of McCain's campaign. After McCain's lifeless June 2nd speech in front of the much-panned lime-green backdrop, Bill Kristol said: "There are lots of Republicans I have talked to are concerned. They're not panicked. They're concerned."

And they are right to be. What the GOP is going to learn too late (or, possibly, never) is that it's not just, as Kristol calls it, a matter of "presentation." It's a matter of message.

Republicans didn't lose control of Congress in 2006 because, as many of them -- in deep denial -- continue to believe they just didn't get their message out there. The message got out there all right. And it got rejected in November 2006, just as it should in November 2008.

Of course, McCain could have taken a different route. After all, once upon a time, he was a politician who actually was defined by his willingness to depart from the GOP message. No more. McCain has now completely abandoned his core principles, cashed in his maverick chips, and gone all-in with the GOP's right wing.

A man who once summed up why torture should never be an option by saying, "It's not about who they are, it's about who we are," is now embracing Bush's "shrunken vision" of America wholesale. A man who saved his political career by making campaign finance reform his signature issue, has done a 180 turn and loaded his campaign up with lobbyists.

According to a just-released Pew poll, when voters were asked to describe McCain, "maverick" didn't make the list. Nor did "reformer" or "independent." The most frequent word was: "old."

But McCain's problem isn't that he's too old -- it's that his ideas are too old. In fact, they can be traced back to the very first days of the Bush administration. He's got a 2003 Iraq strategy, a 2001 view of the economy, and a take on gay marriage that is straight out of the Dark Ages.

The question facing voters this year is: do you want a president who will take us into the future or do you want a president who's mired in the past? As Tommy Schlamme who, among many other great shows, executive produced The West Wing, told me: "Watching McCain's and Obama's speeches back-to-back the other night was like going from black-and-white TV to high-def."

So we are left with the sorry spectacle of a low-def candidate, one who has abandoned that which made him a real leader in the first place, now reduced to dutifully repeating the talking points of an administration the public is turning away from more and more every day. When he called last week's Supreme Court decision affirming the right of Guantanamo prisoners to challenge their detention in U.S. courts "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country," he was tossing red meat to the right and parroting something he can't possibly believe. Upholding the Constitutional right to habeas corpus ranks up there with Dred Scott or Plessy v. Ferguson, Senator? Really?

It's going to be a long, hot summer for McCain surrogates. What are they going to say? I got a taste last week when I was on Larry King with GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee. She seemed to think the major issue Republicans could win running on was earmarks: "[McCain] has been with us, the House conservatives, on the issue of earmarks," she said. "Economic issues are the number one issues. And I do believe that those play to his strengths."

I'm sure the Obama campaign hopes the congresswoman and McCain truly believe that.

On the other hand, what else have they got? Iraq? Skyrocketing gas prices? Pink slips and foreclosures? When a campaign's game plan comes down to demonizing your opponent's wife, I'd say the big ideas needle is pointing to "Empty."

Kristol and other Republican pooh-bahs may want to chalk up their Party's woes to a glitch in "presentation" or to the media. But saying it won't make it true.

America has received the GOP's message loud and clear. And if John McCain continues to embrace it, he's going to meet the same fate as Bob Dole. On the bright side, I'm sure those Viagra commercials paid pretty well.