Will McCain Go Negative In Tonight’s Debate?

That’s the question of the day. The McCain campaign has decided to go negative on Barack Obama in the last month of the campaign, invoking Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in recent days. It’s easy, though, to raise attacks like those at a campaign rally filled with sympathetic listeners or in a newspaper column with one sympathetic listener. It’s much harder to do so while standing face to face with your opponent, in front of a neutral crowd. It took a number of debates before Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards had the famous slugfest in South Carolina in which Clinton dropped the Rezko bomb and Obama taunted Hillary for her husband’s antics by saying “I can’t tell who I’m running against sometimes.”

But McCain knows how to get rough. In a Republican debate in New Hampshire, he took the lead in a tag team assault on Mitt Romney, sticking the shiv in so many times that Romney was left pleading for civility, saying, “Senator, is there a way to have this about issues and not about personal attacks?”

McCain needs to fundamentally shift the state of the race. Fighting Obama to a draw, like he did in the first debate, simply won’t cut it. And it appears that as long as the candidates stick to the issues, Obama rises in the polls. (Unnamed McCain strategist in the New York Daily News: “If we keep talking about the economic crisis, we’re going to lose.”) McCain may have no choice but to focus on issues of character, personal history, and personal associations tonight. That said, it is a path cluttered with landmines. If Obama hammers his talking points on the economy’s dire condition and on health care (his campaign’s current focus) while McCain launches attack after attack about men in Obama’s past, McCain runs the risk of looking desperate, out of touch, and unfocused on the country’s most pressing issues.

And that comes at a serious price. According to the latest NBC/WSJ poll, Obama’s favorability among independents has shot through the roof, presumably because voters trust Democrats more on the economy and because Obama has shown a steady hand through the financial crisis. Two weeks ago, McCain had a higher favorability rating among indies, 51%-38%. Now Obama is up four, 42%-38%. With the Republican base shrinking and unenthusiastic, McCain simply cannot win without independents, who are famous for reacting poorly to partisan mudslinging. If McCain takes that route tonight, he may see his electoral prospects worsen.