He had three seconds to pull out of the nosedive.
Three seconds to take action, or John McCain would splatter right there on the deck of the debate stage at Nashville's Belmont University.
There are some emergencies where, once you're in them, it's already too late to save yourself; there's simply no way out. And there are other emergencies where, if you're quick enough and sharp enough (and lucky enough), you still have one last chance to set things right, to avert disaster.
This was one of those other emergencies.
This was "That one." And John McCain had just three seconds to do something about it. There they were, John McCain and Barack Obama, going at one another on the economy, on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending. And now John McCain had the floor, and he was setting up a zinger.
"By the way, my friends," he began, "I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth. It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know." And here he pointed toward Obama.
Which is when the sirens should have gone off in his head. "That one"? He really referred to Barack Obama as "That one"? Now, you've probably heard that phrase used before, by other people, in other contexts. You probably didn't think much about it one way or the other -- it was said without an edge, in affectionate frustration: "There we were, with the car all packed and everybody belted in, when that one decides he has to go to the bathroom again." You can get away with it when it comes out that way. But this didn't sound anything like affectionate. For starters, John McCain isn't exactly known for doing affectionate.
And given the barely controlled contempt McCain has been showing for Obama lately... And given the McCain campaign's constant efforts to paint Obama as different, as the outsider, the mystery man, "not one of us," there was no way it would be heard as affectionate.
He had three seconds to make it right. The words he uttered immediately after "That one" -- "You know who voted against it?" -- still kept his options alive. His option, actually. Short of stopping and apologizing, and throwing himself on the mercy of Obama and the millions watching, he had only one option: He could have pointed to himself -- pointed square at his own chest -- and said, "This one."
"You know who voted against it? This one." "That one" and "This one." He'd have made them both objects, so neither of them would have been objects. He'd have erased the insult with evenhanded disdain. But that was his only chance. In the time it took him to say "You know who voted against it?" he had to realize what he'd said just before that, and how it would sound, and that he absolutely had to correct it before he reached the end of the next sentence. After that, it would be too late.
"You know who voted against it?" John McCain said, and the next words out of his mouth would decide it. "Me."
He didn't say "This one." He said "Me." He blew his chance. And a YouTube classic was born.
Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at email@example.com.