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Where McCain Lost It

Tonight’s debate is not going to do John McCain any favors. On the contrary, it was the most lopsided of the four events in the post-debate snap polls.

McCain was winning the debate early on, responding with surprising vigor and detail on the economy. But then came this:

SCHIEFFER: All right. We’re going to move to another question and the topic is leadership in this campaign. Both of you pledged to take the high road in this campaign yet it has turned very nasty.

Senator Obama, your campaign has used words like “erratic,” “out of touch,” “lie,” “angry,” “losing his bearings” to describe Senator McCain.

Senator McCain, your commercials have included words like “disrespectful,” “dangerous,” “dishonorable,” “he lied.” Your running mate said he “palled around with terrorists.”

Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other’s face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?

And, Senator McCain, you’re first.

MCCAIN: Well, this has been a tough campaign. It’s been a very tough campaign. And I know from my experience in many campaigns that, if Senator Obama had asked — responded to my urgent request to sit down, and do town hall meetings, and come before the American people, we could have done at least 10 of them by now.

When Senator Obama was first asked, he said, “Any place, any time,” the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do, before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas. So I think the tone of this campaign could have been very different.

And the fact is, it’s gotten pretty tough. And I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns. But the fact is that it has taken many turns which I think are unacceptable.

What if McCain had stopped right there? He gets in a marginally compelling talking point about the town hall meetings, but then steps back and shares the blame.

Instead, McCain continued as follows:

One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect — I’ve written about him — Congressman John Lewis, an American hero, made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.

And, Senator Obama, you didn’t repudiate those remarks. Every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis, very unfair and totally inappropriate.

So I want to tell you, we will run a truthful campaign. This is a tough campaign. And it’s a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history. And I can prove it. And, Senator Obama, when he said — and he signed a piece of paper that said he would take public financing for his campaign if I did — that was back when he was a long-shot candidate — you didn’t keep your word.

And when you looked into the camera in a debate with Senator Clinton and said, “I will sit down and negotiate with John McCain about public financing before I make a decision,” you didn’t tell the American people the truth because you didn’t.

And that’s — that’s — that’s an unfortunate part. Now we have the highest spending by Senator Obama’s campaign than any time since Watergate.

McCain’s implication that Obama was principally responsible for the negative tone of the campaign was simply not going to be credible to most voters. Certainly, the Obama campaign has been negative at times — more often than either the Al Gore or John Kerry — and on several occasions explictly misleading. But voters came into the debate thinking by 2:1 margins that McCain was running a negative campaign and Obama a positive one. To try and fight against that tide was a significant mistake.

And as though to prove the point, just a few moments later, McCain attacked Obama on Ayers and ACORN, using particularly hyperbolic rhetoric in the latter case:

MCCAIN: Yes, real quick. Mr. Ayers, I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.

We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for “lighting and site selection.” So all of these things need to be examined, of course.

And then, just a few moments after that, came this:

MCCAIN: And it’s not the fact — it’s not the fact that Senator Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had have bombed more, and he had a long association with him. It’s the fact that all the — all of the details need to be known about Senator Obama’s relationship with them and with ACORN and the American people will make a judgment.

And my campaign is about getting this economy back on track, about creating jobs, about a brighter future for America. And that’s what my campaign is about and I’m not going to raise taxes the way Senator Obama wants to raise taxes in a tough economy. And that’s really what this campaign is going to be about.

Could that sequence possibly have been any more awkward? Mere seconds after reminding America that Willie Ayers was a terrorist, McCain flatly asserted that his campaign was all about the economy. You might expect to see two paragraphs like this interspersed through different parts of the transcript. You certainly do not expect to see them back to back. It’s as though you could see avatars of Steve Schmidt and John Weaver perched atop John McCain’s respective shoulders, wrestling for control of his message.

Obama, it should be noted, was not particularly effective during this exchange (especially considering that he should have prepped for this kind of sequence days ahead of time), eliciting a lukewarm response from the dial groups. But it turned out that he didn’t have to be, as McCain was left with just enough rope to hang himself. And from that point forward, the dials looked like the S&P 500 every time that Obama finished one of his responses and McCain began his. The voters had been pleasantly surprised with the McCain they saw in the first 20 minutes of the debate. But after that disingenuous sequence on negative campaigning, they basically gave up on him.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.