08/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where Have You Gone, John?

In the middle of John McCain's dopey Britney & Paris attack ad, the announcer gravely asks of Barack Obama: "Is He Ready to Lead?" An equally good question is whether McCain is ready to lead. For a man who will turn 72 this month, he's a surprisingly immature politician--erratic, impulsive and subject to peer pressure from the last knucklehead who offers him advice. The youthful insouciance that for many years has helped McCain charm reporters like me is now channeled into an ad that one GOP strategist labeled "juvenile," another termed "childish" and McCain's own mother called "stupid." The Obama campaign's new mantra is that McCain is "an honorable man running a dishonorable campaign." Lame is more like it. And out of sync with the real guy.

Of course, it might work. Maybe depicting Obama as a presumptuous and vaguely foreign presence will resonate. (Why else would one of McCain's slogans be "An American president for America"?) Maybe voters will agree with McCain campaign manager Rick Davis, who played the fussy card last week by arguing the central importance to the future of the republic of Obama's taste for "MET-Rx chocolate roasted peanut protein bars and bottles of a hard-to-find organic brew called Black Forest Berry Honest Tea." (Davis somehow forgot to mention McCain's own preference for $520 Ferragamo shoes.) Maybe convincing nervous white voters that Obama is another Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson in his use of racial grievance politics will carry McCain to the White House.

But this is not 1988, when Vice President George Bush turned Michael Dukakis into an unpatriotic coddler of criminals. (Bush that year had a popular president and a strong economy behind him.) And it's not 2004, when his son Swift-Boated John Kerry. (The president would have likely won anyway by playing on post-9/11 fear.) This year, McCain is running under a tattered Republican banner, with more than 80 percent of the public thinking the country is on the wrong track. Without some compelling vision beyond support for offshore drilling, the negativity may well boomerang. "It's hard to imagine America responding to 'small ball' when we have all these problems," says John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist in 2000 who was pushed out of the campaign last year.

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