McCain’s dilemma

John McCain boasts that he knows the difference between tactics and strategy, so he must recognize that the final weeks of his campaign against Barack Obama are plagued with difficulties in both realms. His strategic goal -- to run as the more experienced, worldly and wiser candidate -- is undermined by an electorate stubbornly unwilling to regard him as more presidential than his rival. And his tactical response, to challenge Obama with increasing ferocity, is only making matters worse.

That dilemma was on display Tuesday night as McCain used the second presidential debate to attempt to resuscitate his struggling effort. He wasted no time, opening with a blockbuster proposal to have the government buy up troubled mortgages. For a candidate who once deplored much federal action in this area, that’s a big turn, one that could rescue many homeowners but at great cost to taxpayers -- about $300 billion, by his estimates.

McCain’s attempts to regain the initiative were constrained by the evolving realities of the campaign. He needs to dent Obama’s popularity without appearing mean. Thus, gone were the smirks and winces of the first debate, but his criticisms of Obama wobbled between flat attempts at humor -- nailing down his rival’s tax plan, McCain lamely offered, “is like trying to nail Jello to the wall” -- and flashes of the condescension he displayed last time, notably his curmudgeonly dismissal of Obama as “that one.”

Obama offered openings. His support for “clean coal” is oxymoronic and transparently political. His message on global warming is undermined by his support for expanded domestic oil drilling. And if the debate was sometimes frustrating -- how often must McCain address us as “my friends”; how many times must we suffer Obama’s praise for the moderator? -- it did have clarifying moments. Here’s one: McCain views healthcare as a responsibility; Obama sees it as a right. That is a genuine distinction upon which voters may hang a choice.

But in purely political terms, Obama has wider latitude, and he’s using it. A month ago, Gallup had McCain’s support among registered voters at 48% and Obama’s at 43%. Today, Obama leads by nine percentage points and, for the first time, is edging above 50%. Battleground states are slipping toward the Democratic column. Sarah Palin was a source of Republican energy; now, she’s an anchor.

Neither insults nor 11th-hour initiatives will change that dynamic over the next month. What McCain needs to regain his balance is to persuade voters that he has a cogent, coherent economic proposal and a command over this dominant issue. He did not deliver either Tuesday night.