Ch. 6: Battling it Out in the Great Debates

VI. Later, after McCain's ride to the rescue had been mocked in the press, some of his advisers blamed Steve Schmidt for the fiasco. The campaign's chief strategist was forever searching for the bold stroke, the instant game changer, but by urging McCain to go to Washington, he had impetuously and blindly steered the candidate into a trap. "McCain never saw it as a stunt," insisted one aide. But to most commentators, the bizarre rush back to Washington seemed gimmicky—one more tactical gambit in a campaign that seemed to lack any coherent or consistent strategy.

The Obama team never took seriously McCain's announcement that he was suspending his campaign and putting off the first debate. They noted that McCain never canceled his hotel reservations (or most of his ads) or informed the Commission on Presidential Debates that the candidate would not be attending. Some McCain staffers later confessed they didn't think for a second he'd skip the debate. Obama's attitude toward the whole strange interlude was one of mild exasperation. When he first learned that McCain was heading for Washington, he had just silently thrown up his hands. He seemed slightly annoyed that he had to go along with the charade at the White House, which meant missing out on valuable debate-prep time, but he did not complain too loudly. There was no point; he realized soon enough that McCain had stepped on a banana peel.

Obama prepared scrupulously and relentlessly for the debates. He knew that he had delivered a mediocre to weak performance at the Saddleback forum in August. In what amounted to a preview of the formal presidential debates, the two candidates had agreed to be interviewed back to back by the Rev. Rick Warren, the bestselling evangelist, at his megachurch in California. McCain delivered short, punchy answers, and most pundits declared that he had won the day. Obama plowed along in his ponderous professor mode. Warren had asked the same questions of both candidates, and the Obama aides complained that McCain must have cheated by seeing the questions beforehand, likely furnished by aides with BlackBerrys who had watched Obama go first. McCain's advisers retorted that McCain was kept in the dark, in part because he wanted to honor the rules and also because his aides didn't want him to be distracted by trying to match Obama's answers.

Never one to wing it, Obama studied for the three official presidential debates, scheduled for roughly once a week from late September to mid-October, as if he were taking the bar exam. He memorized details on new weapons systems so he wouldn't look like a neophyte on national defense. But the real challenge, he knew, was not in the details of policy or his mastery of defense-spending arcana. He would need to show something more ineffable but profound—a true command presence. As his aides never ceased to remind him, he would have to look "presidential."

The topic of the first debate was meant to be foreign policy, McCain's strong suit. Obama did not object. Better to get it out of the way—to deal with his perceived weakness right away, to outperform expectations. Inevitably, given the crisis in Washington, the first questions from the moderator, Jim Lehrer of PBS, were bound to focus on the proposed bailout and the economy. But that was all right, too. Obama's burden was to show that he was ready to step up to crisis, that he would not be learning on the job in the Oval Office.

In debate prep, Obama's advisers repeatedly instructed him: Do not get personal. Stay calm and in control. Stay presidential. The voters know you represent change; now you've got to persuade them to see you as president.

"Command and control: we told him, 'Write it down on your pad when you go in'," said Joel Benenson, a pollster who was on the debate-prep team. The candidates were not allowed to bring notes in with them, but they could take notes once they got onstage. Benenson later told a NEWSWEEK reporter that he doubted that Obama took their advice to write it down. The candidate didn't need to: "He knew that was the mission," said Benenson.

Obama was up against McCain's strength and experience in the national-security realm, but he was also confronting a deeper stereotype, a curse that had kept the Democrats out of the White House for 20 of the last 28 years. Ever since the days of Jimmy Carter, a majority of Americans had consistently told pollsters that they trusted the Republicans more on the issue of security—not just abroad, but at home. To use ancient and more or less discredited (but still potent) clichés, the Democrats were the Mommy party, comforting the needy and weak, while the Republicans were the Daddy party, keeping the family safe from threats. In the debates, it was critical that Obama come across as looking like Dad. His hope was that McCain would appear to be the crotchety uncle who lived up in the attic.

At Obama's debate rehearsals, held repeatedly through the late summer and with increasing frequency and intensity in September, the role of McCain was played by Gregory Craig—the ace Washington lawyer dubbed as one of "the Kool-Aid boys" by a bemused Obama back in 2006. After urging Obama to run, Craig had become an informal foreign-policy adviser to him. A trial lawyer, Craig was agile and could, if necessary, come on strong. The expectation was that McCain would condescend to Obama as a wet-behind-the-ears rookie, so Craig played his role accordingly. "Do not lecture me about the war," Craig-as-McCain said, glowering at Obama, in debate prep. "Do not tell me how to deploy men in combat. I was flying a jet over Vietnam when you were in grade school."

Obama was tutored to seem stern and unflinching, to treat McCain respectfully but to stand up to him. He rehearsed a moment when he could turn to McCain and counterattack—to begin by saying, "You were wrong about Iraq …" and work through a litany of McCain's misjudgments. The Obama team was sure that McCain would criticize him for having said, in a Democratic debate in the summer of 2007, that he would be willing to meet with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Obama was instructed to point out that McCain was so averse to personal diplomacy that he had declined to meet with the president of Spain. Obama can be a little bloodless and dull in his preternatural calm, but his goofy side showed up at debate prep. He would appear very somber and emphatic when he accosted Craig/McCain for refusing to speak to the president of Spain. "You wouldn't even talk to the president of Spain!" he would intone with mock gravity. Then he would begin to giggle. He was told that he should attack McCain for saying that it was enough to "muddle through" on Afghanistan. "Muddle through!" Obama would exclaim and dissolve into giggles. It was as if he refused to take the theater of mock indignation too seriously.

Obama never lost his ironic detachment, even when he was preparing for the most important public appearances of his life. A little comic relief was called for. In the carefully prepared world of Obamaland, nothing was left to chance. The rehearsal room in Clearwater, Fla., was an exact replica of the debate stage where Obama met McCain in the first debate at Ole Miss. No detail was overlooked. The podiums were set at the precise angles. Obama rehearsed in the evenings, to match his natural circadian rhythms. For the second debate, a town-hall format, Obama was told to be careful to hold the mike by his side—not straight up in his lap—when he sat down. The same instructions had been given to John Kerry four years ago. It wasn't hard to persuade the candidates to mind the advice, said an aide; all you had to do was show them a video.

Obama's debate coach, Michael Sheehan, a veteran of many campaign psychodramas over the years, was struck by the senator's calmness. The candidate was always in control of his feelings. During one afternoon prep session, Obama begged off. "I'm a little tired and a little cranky," he told a roomful of aides. "I'm going to my room for a half hour and I'll be in better shape to work with." He reappeared 30 minutes later, ready for work. Obama was, as ever, self-possessed—his own best judge of his mood and strength. After a full-dress mock debate in the evening, when it was time to review the tape of his performance, Obama turned to Sheehan and said, "Michael, I'm tired." He was not complaining, Sheehan recalled; he was just being matter-of-fact. Nothing seemed to rattle Obama. He had a way of retreating into his own little world. During one of the debate preps, the lights blew, flickering on and off like a strobe light from the 1970s disco craze. Obama stood behind the podium, quietly singing the song "Disco Inferno," last popular in the heyday of "Saturday Night Fever."

On the day of the first debate, in Jackson, Miss., Obama ate a late lunch with Valerie Jarrett, Eric Whitaker and Marty Nesbitt, his closest Chicago pals. He was serenely calm, Jarrett recalled. He talked about having done everything he'd set out to do; he said he had no regrets. Later, onstage, Obama often politely agreed with McCain (11 times), but he did not let himself be bullied. McCain called his opponent's ideas "naive" and "dangerous," but Obama, smiling impassively, did not take the bait. There were no knockdown blows or surprising moments. The drama was more in the nature of a highly stylized Kabuki theater—a kind of playing out of a hoary ritual that was more timeless than topical, more deferential to political tropes (Always praise the goodness of the American people! Do not require them to sacrifice!) than it was responsive to the challenges ahead. In some ways, the candidates seemed oddly irrelevant to the fiscal crisis. Asked if they supported the bailout bill hanging fire in Congress, they both gave tepid endorsements and dodged around the question of whether their campaign promises needed to be tempered in any way.

Political reporters, who tend to score debates as prize fights, were disappointed. Some decreed that McCain had landed the most punches, racked up the most points. But in the public polls that followed the debate, Obama emerged as the consensus winner. He had been the cool and steady one. McCain had seemed at first quite subdued, then a little cranky and peevish at moments. He would not look at Obama despite Lehrer's admonition to the candidates to directly talk to each other. The overall effect was a role reversal, a flip-flop of predebate expectations: the candidate who looked most "presidential" was Obama.

After the first debate, McCain and his handlers reviewed the videotape. Why, one aide asked him, did you never look at Obama? Because you told me not to! McCain retorted. It was true. McCain's debate coach, Brett O'Donnell, had noted Obama's tendency to look directly at an opponent while attacking, and he had instructed McCain not to get sucked in by meeting his gaze. But McCain had taken the advice a little too literally. "We didn't tell you not to look at him at all," one aide chided him. (Advisers also told McCain to soften his blows by saying "what my opponent doesn't understand"— another trope he overused.) The veteran of a thousand morning talk shows, McCain was accustomed to speaking directly to the camera, not to his inquisitor in the studio. But in this case his experience was a liability.

McCain had looked forward to prepping for debates about as much as he did to studying for exams in school. The preparations for the rehearsals were "a mess," recalled one of his top advisers. The candidate at first resisted debate prep, then couldn't get enough of it. McCain didn't settle on Congressman Rob Portman to play the role of Obama until three weeks before the first debate. (Craig had been preparing for his McCain turn for months.) When the rehearsals finally began, McCain worked hard, and he sought feedback on his answers, but the plethora of opinions was not always helpful. Pretty much anyone was allowed to sit in—all the top campaign aides, as well as, it seemed to one exasperated adviser, "random senators." As he prepared for the second debate, there were "too many voices," this adviser later lamented. "It was getting him tied up." McCain would listen to different people telling him that he had to say something in a certain way, and then he would go onstage "thinking in his mind: OK, I have to get 15 things in. What are the 15 things?" recalled the adviser—"rather than just being himself. His personality never came through." Accustomed to detailed debate in the Senate, he bridled at reducing his opinions to sound bites. The off-the-cuff charmer and disarmer from the old Straight Talk Express was missing from the second debate, a town-hall format that was supposed to be the most comfortable setting for McCain.

Various advisers cautioned McCain against being too aggressive. They recalled that he had been particularly caustic, almost brutal, toward Mitt Romney during the primary debates in January. McCain tried to joke that he was just getting it out of his system, but Mark Salter interjected, "C'mon, John, that was like shooting the wounded."

McCain's coaches worried about the candidate's undisguised disdain for Obama. McCain dismissed his opponent as grandiose. He found Obama to be affected; he was irked by footage of Obama swaggering along, dangling his coat coolly over his shoulder. For the battered McCain, whose arms were so stiff that he could not raise them to comb his own hair, Obama's smooth-operator style was pretentious.

Tension grew as McCain prepared for the second debate, the town-hall format in Nashville on Oct. 7. Pygmalion-like, Salter kept trying to craft the John McCain of their heroic books—plain-spoken yet eloquent, quietly noble in his humble greatness. Salter was "tightly wound," observed an aide who was present at the debate preps. "He was really pressing John to say things exactly like he would say them." On a Saturday session in a dingy conference room at the Radisson Hotel in Phoenix, McCain seemed distracted, off his game. He maintained his sense of humor. "Duprey!" he would periodically yell to friend Steve Duprey, who sat in the back reading a book or a newspaper. "Why haven't you fallen asleep yet?" But at one point McCain flubbed an answer to the faux moderator (played by Charlie Black, who was so serious about his role that he wouldn't let McCain or Portman go to the bathroom during precisely timed rehearsals). Everyone in the room, including McCain, knew that the answer had been off base. Salter stood up and said, "Every part of that answer was completely wrong." McCain collapsed into his chair, deflated. "Well, let's give up," he said, exasperated. He wanted to go to his cabin in Sedona. The next day a smaller group held a more focused practice session there, under the Arizona sun. McCain's sense of humor recovered, and he began teasing staffers. "Should I really feed you people after that?" he cracked as they broke for dinner.

To ease the mood before the first debate, McCain's advisers had shown the candidate a YouTube video of Joe Biden awkwardly encouraging a supporter at a rally to stand up—not realizing the man was in a wheelchair. McCain was amused by Biden's amiable talkiness. He was relieved to face him as the veep choice, and not Hillary Clinton, whom the McCain camp had truly feared. At the vice presidential debate on Oct. 2, McCain was delighted to see that Sarah Palin had irritated Biden. Watching the TV with some aides, McCain exclaimed, "He looks like an angry old senator!" The staffers were awkwardly silent, unsure if McCain appreciated the irony of his statement and hoping that he would experience a flash of self-recognition in time for his own performance in debate No. 2, just five days away.

He apparently did not. Haltingly pacing the stage, his limbs stiff from old wounds, McCain repeated the expression "my friends" until it was a meaningless punctuation mark. Obama stayed perched on his stool, watching, and not saying anything very memorable or that might in some way impede his steady march upward in the polls. McCain's aides later grumbled to a NEWSWEEK reporter that the town-hall format was a joke, that moderator Tom Brokaw asked too many questions and that the candidates couldn't really engage the voters with two-minute answers. But all of that may have been irrelevant. The same afternoon of the second debate, the Dow plunged 500 points. As the economy sank, the fortunes of Obama—as the Democratic candidate after eight years of Republican rule—inevitably rose. McCain could have performed flawlessly and still succumbed to economic reality.

After the town-hall debate, Salter and Schmidt reunited with a dozen or so members of the traveling press corps at a karaoke bar in Nashville. It had been months since the duo had had a night out with reporters. Salter, who had sung in a band in college, was cajoled into singing a few tunes. Before long, and after a drink or two, he was into it. Under pressure from the reporters, Schmidt joined him for a chorus of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Schmidt even sang "Rocky Mountain High," to squeals from the increasingly inebriated reporters. But then he went off and sat quietly. Schmidt looked worn out, his burly body weighed by stress and the woes of the campaign, his relentless stare dimmed by exhaustion. He ignored political questions and talked quietly about his family. Salter, on the other hand, had found his groove. Standing in the middle of the bar, dressed in his ubiquitous corduroy jacket, he bellowed "More Dylan!" until he had belted out every Bob Dylan song the bar had. Reporters sang loud, drunken backup and tried to get Salter to join them in boy-band dance moves. It was the first time anyone had seen Salter look as if he was having fun in a long time.

Salter had long deferred to Schmidt. McCain's speech and book-writing amanuensis was more than a decade and a half older than the campaign's chief strategist, but Schmidt was a take-charge type, while Salter preferred to play the observer and consigliere. The two men kept each other laughing with deadpan, self-deprecating humor. Salter joked about Schmidt's mathematical limitations, noting that his friend was so dyslexic he could barely read a poll. But as a storyteller, Salter admired Schmidt's ability to lay out a narrative, the storyline that every campaign needs to make its candidate more appealing (or less unappealing) to voters. Schmidt had been instrumental in launching the "No Surrender Tour" after the campaign staggered through the summer of 2007, and in July he had revived the flagging campaign again with the "celebrity" ad. Salter had fully come around to Schmidt's skeptical view of the press. Once, after Salter refused to let a couple of snarky bloggers aboard the Straight Talk Express, Schmidt called him with congratulations for staying firm. The two advisers had finally managed to persuade McCain to stop reading the political coverage of The New York Times after he had been irked by a couple of critical stories in late September.

Salter never criticized Schmidt, either to other reporters or within the campaign. He wanted to honor McCain's admonition against backbiting by his top advisers, and the two remained close friends. With a NEWSWEEK reporter, Schmidt rebuffed media gossip that he had grown apart from Salter. But he spent less time kicking back with him, in part because Schmidt was more often in headquarters than on the road. One evening at the bar, when Schmidt came over and a gaggle of reporters quickly turned their attention away from Salter (who was a familiar presence) and to Schmidt (who was not), Salter cracked that "Schmidt never joins a conversation. He commandeers it."

Though he denied it to NEWSWEEK, Salter seemed troubled by the campaign's relentlessly negative tone. The Obama campaign was not exactly running on sweetness and light—at least a third of Obama's ads attacked McCain. The Obama campaign did not hesitate to imply, through its choice of language, that McCain's "erratic" actions might have something to do with his advanced age. Obama's admen used the shameless old Democratic trick of trying to scare elderly voters by suggesting, based on little evidence, that McCain planned to cut their Social Security benefits in half. But by early October, virtually all of McCain's ads were negative. The press was increasingly painting him as a bitter old man. This seemed to pain Salter, who had worked so hard to craft a heroic, selfless image of John McCain—the idealization that McCain himself had wanted to live up to, but now seemed to be putting at risk by traveling the low road.

Salter was particularly aggrieved by a McCain ad suggesting that Obama wanted sex education taught to preschoolers. He predicted, correctly, that The New York Times would jump all over the ad and lambaste McCain. But no one on the senior team seemed to care what The New York Times wrote anymore. Schmidt wanted to kick the Gray Lady off the campaign plane for good. Though polling suggested that such a move would play well with the GOP base, Salter vehemently protested that it would be foolish to cut off the Times, and Schmidt backed off.

One of McCain's advisers said of Salter, "We call him McCain's wife." As one senior adviser explained it, "I've done a lot of campaigns … and the candidate's wife is always a bit of a problem. The candidate's wife, her job is different from everyone else's. Our job is for Candidate X to win. The candidate's wife's job is always to protect the candidate. Those two goals are often in conflict." A NEWSWEEK reporter asked the strategist if Salter was just reflecting McCain's preferences. "If that were a true husband and wife, how would you know?" the adviser answered. As for McCain's actual wife, "she has not been one bit of a problem. I'm a big Cindy fan."

In mid-October, one senior adviser noted to the NEWSWEEK reporter, "Of late there has been more separation between [Salter] and Steve [Schmidt] because, I think, he thinks we are taking McCain down a path that we shouldn't. And quite frankly, we are. It's the difference between scorched earth and having as little collateral damage as possible." ""

The Palin media rollout was a particularly destructive weapon. Vice presidential candidates often act as attackers, allowing their running mates to float above the fray. But Palin's exuberant assaults on Obama ended up dragging McCain into the middle of the fight, where he seemed decidedly uncomfortable.

Palin was being handled by Nicolle Wallace, a veteran of the hardball politics of the Bush-Cheney campaign (she had been a press-bashing director of communications). Recruited by Schmidt, Wallace had come from a stint as a commentator at CBS. She had the disastrous idea of making Palin available only for a series of high-profile media interviews, and then overprepared her with a cram course of talking points. It was embarrassing to watch Palin grope for answers to Katie Couric's questions—and thanks to YouTube, more than 10 million voters witnessed it. "She is not a dumb person," said a senior McCain adviser. "She is an intelligent person, but we made her so uptight." Some old McCain hands on the campaign were sharply critical of the Bush-Cheney alumni brought onboard by Schmidt. Wallace and the others had not only botched the handling of Palin, in the view of the old McCainiacs; they didn't understand that McCain needed to be McCain. (Wallace took responsibility, in an edgy kind of way: "I keep trying to get someone to write that it's my stupid strategy," she told a NEWSWEEK reporter. "I should be fired. I've offered my resignation twice in the spirit of Dwight D. Eisenhower, taking responsibility, and no one will take it." In truth, Wallace was in a tough place: Palin was no longer taking much coaching from her. Feeling that she had been overmanaged for her one-on-one debut with a network anchor—Charlie Gibson of ABC—Palin had rebuffed Wallace's help with her Couric interview.)

Palin skillfully handled her debate with Joe Biden by essentially ignoring the questions posed by the "media elite" (PBS's Gwen Ifill, the moderator). And she was rousing at rallies of true believers. "God bless America, you guys get it!" she enthused a few minutes after 9 on a muggy October morning in Clearwater, Fla. An enormous American flag was suspended on a crane over her head. "Drill, baby, drill!" screamed the virtually all-white crowd of several thousand. She started in on Obama. "I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America," she said.

She brought up William Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber who was acquainted with Obama through Chicago politics. "I'm afraid that this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who targeted his own people."

In tailored jackets and skirts, she was glamorous and tastefully sexy (Politico reported that the McCain campaign spent $150,000 to dress her and her family). She was speaking before a working-class crowd in Bethlehem, Pa., a few days later when a man in the audience shouted out, "You're a hottie!" Onstage, John McCain laughed, and Cindy laughed louder. Not missing a beat, Palin flashed a killer smile and asked, "Now, what does that have to do with anything?"

But in other ways she was a little too hot. At the Clearwater rally, someone in the crowd used a racial epithet about a black sound man for NBC, and someone else reportedly yelled "Kill him!" in an ambiguous reference to either Ayers or Obama. By the end of the week, YouTube was showing film clips of Palin crowds shouting "Treason!", "Off with his head!" and "He is a bomb!" At a McCain-Palin rally in Strongsville, Ohio, a man called Obama a "one-man terror cell," and in one unsettling film clip a voter's young daughter exclaims about Obama, "You need gloves to touch him!"

Palin, the polls showed, had succeeded in rallying the Republican base. But she, or the simmering anger around her, helped make Obama supporters out of countless independent voters.

On the weekend between the second and third debates, Congressman John Lewis—a civil-rights hero who had been beaten while staging nonviolent protests during the 1960s—issued a press release accusing McCain and Palin of "playing with fire" and seeming to compare McCain to former Alabama governor George Wallace, a segregationist infamous for stirring racial fears. McCain was stunned. He had devoted a chapter to Lewis in one of his books, "Why Courage Matters." He so admired Lewis that he had taken his children to meet him.

McCain was on his bus, about to board a plane in Moline, Ill., when he read the remarks on an aide's BlackBerry. He was so dumbfounded that he held the plane on the tarmac while he considered how to respond. Salter, who had penned the chapter on Lewis, urged McCain to remain more dignified than Lewis had been in his remarks. But Schmidt called in from headquarters brimming with outrage. "Sir," said Schmidt, "he called you a racist. It must be responded to." Nicolle Wallace agreed. Salter was not so sure. He was "very pained" over the incident, Schmidt later recalled about Salter, but his instinct told him not to get his boss into a name-calling fight with a martyr of the civil-rights movement. McCain decided to go with Schmidt and put out a strong statement calling on Obama to "immediately and personally repudiate these outrageous and divisive comments." (Obama left it to a spokesman to blandly state, "Senator Obama does not believe that John McCain or his policy criticism is in any way comparable to George Wallace or his segregationist policies.")

According to several aides, McCain had trouble shaking his sadness over Lewis's statement. To the reporters traveling with McCain, the candidate seemed uncertain, as if he was not quite sure what he had gotten himself into. In an effort to raise doubts about Obama, McCain had given a stump speech in which he asked the audience, "Who is Barack Obama?" At an earlier rally in Albuquerque a man shouted, "A terrorist!" McCain paused, taken aback. He looked surprised, troubled. But he continued with the speech. (Salter later said McCain wasn't sure that he had heard correctly.)

A couple of days later, at a rally in Lakeville, Minn., he seemed to find his bearings. "If you want a fight, we will fight," he said. "But we will be respectful. I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments. I will respect him, and I want—no, no," McCain said to loud boos. "I want everyone to be respectful." In the question-and-answer period, a middle-aged woman in a bright red shirt took the mike and said, "I can't trust Obama. I have read about him, and he's not, he's not, he's a, um—he's an Arab."

"No. No, ma'am. No, ma'am. No, ma'am. No, ma'am," McCain said, taking back the wireless mike. "He's a decent family man, a citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues; that's what this campaign is about. He's not. Thank you."

On Oct. 12, the Sunday night before the last debate, McCain's core group of advisers—Steve Schmidt, Rick Davis, adman Fred Davis, strategist Greg Strimple, pollster Bill McInturff and strategy director Sarah Simmons—met to review the state of the campaign. The polling numbers were grim. The question on the table was whether it was time to call on McCain and tell him it was over, that he no longer had a chance to win. The consensus in the room was no, not yet, not while he still had a "pulse." The pulse was faint, one of the strategists said afterward, and getting fainter—McCain had no better than a 10 or 15 percent shot at the presidency. The group knew he would have to have a very strong last debate to improve the odds even a little.

There was grumbling that Palin had jumped the gun by bringing up Ayers at her rallies before the campaign could properly do the groundwork with a rollout strategy and ads. (At one rally, she had talked about Obama "palling around with terrorists.") Palin was mad at her handlers. Reportedly, she felt that Wallace and Schmidt had poorly coached and advised her. One adviser later speculated that she impulsively talked about Ayers because she felt thwarted—she had really wanted to bring up the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. (Actually, Palin was feeling hurt and angry over the tabloid treatment of her 17-year-old daughter Bristol, and decided—on her own—that Ayers should be fair game. McCain's advisers were working on a strategy that would launch an Ayers attack the following week, but McCain had not signed off on it, and Salter was resisting.)

The campaign's internal polls showed that those lower-income swing voters in industrial states had not forgotten about Wright. In the view of some of his advisers, McCain had a chance to really hurt Obama by dredging up those videotapes of his longtime pastor crying "Goddam America!" But McCain did not want to. He did not want to do anything that smacked of racism. Some of his aides had quietly wished that the 527s, the independent- expenditure groups, would do the campaign's dirty work by running ads about Wright. Yet others worried that the 527s would indeed run lurid ads about Wright—and that McCain would get the blame. In any case, the big conservative moneymen who might fund such a smear campaign were lying low, and not just because their portfolios were suffering in the stock-market dive. They didn't want to be called racist, either.

McCain had set firm boundaries: no Jeremiah Wright; no attacking Michelle Obama; no attacking Obama for not serving in the military. McCain balked at an ad using images of children that suggested that Obama might not protect them from terrorism; Schmidt vetoed ads suggesting that Obama was soft on crime (no Willie Hortons); and before word even got to McCain, Schmidt and Salter scuttled a "celebrity" ad of Obama dancing with talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres (the sight of a black man dancing with a lesbian was deemed too provocative).

In mid-October, Cindy McCain surprised reporters by taking the stage and saying that, as the mother of a Marine in Iraq, she felt "a cold chill" after Obama's vote in the Senate to cut off funds for the troops (a charge that was not accurate). It was rare for the candidate's wife to thrust herself into the spotlight. In late September, she had abruptly dropped off the campaign plane and returned to Arizona. A NEWSWEEK reporter spotted her at a hotel in Ohio; she looked upset. A staffer told the reporter that McCain and his wife had been fighting over his assent to an interview in The New Yorker magazine. Cindy had been hoping he would refuse it as punishment for a long, unflattering profile of her that had appeared in print. It was the last straw for Cindy, who found the campaign trail emotionally and physically trying. She insisted that an aide install an extra curtain around McCain's and her seats on the plane to grant them additional privacy. Anxious that Cindy's stress was affecting McCain, one staffer, who usually appreciates her lighthearted company, privately expressed some relief that she had dropped off for a short while.

"I'm worried," Gregory Craig said to a NEWSWEEK reporter in mid-October. He was concerned that the frenzied atmosphere at the Palin rallies would encourage someone to do something violent toward Obama. He was not the only one in the Obama campaign thinking the unthinkable. The campaign was provided with reports from the Secret Service showing a sharp and very disturbing increase in threats to Obama in September and early October. Michelle was shaken by the vituperative crowds and the hot rhetoric from the GOP candidates. "Why would they try to make people hate us?" she asked Valerie Jarrett. Several of Obama's friends in the Senate were shocked by the GOP rabble-rousing. Dick Durbin, the U.S. senator from Illinois who pushed for early Secret Service coverage for Obama, called Lindsey Graham, who was traveling with McCain. (Graham scoffed at the call as "an orchestrated attempt to push a narrative" about McCain going negative. He said he told Durbin, "OK, buddy, but remember—that goes both ways.")

For the first two debates, the Obama campaign asked members of focus groups to turn dials to measure their response to the candidates. Every time Obama seemed to quarrel with McCain, or even criticize him, his readings went down. For the third debate, the word went out: no "Crossfire"-type wrangling. The Obama campaign had been bracing for attacks on his relationship to Bill Ayers for months (in the spring, focus groups had been assembled to gauge how those attacks would play to the public). The format of the third debate brought the two candidates almost side by side, seated at a table, so Obama would have a more difficult time keeping his distance. But he prepared, as always, to keep his cool. In rehearsal, Craig-as-McCain was so over the top in his efforts to bait Obama that both men dissolved into giggles at one point. But at other times, Obama allowed himself to get angry. Later, when he watched a video of the rehearsal, he saw himself and vowed: no shouting, no talking over McCain. A little subtle needling might be permissible. The goal, said debate-prep coach Michael Sheehan, was to make McCain look like Mr. Wilson, the cranky next-door neighbor in the comic strip "Dennis the Menace," always yelling at the neighborhood kids.

At first, Joe the Plumber made the Obamaites anxious. When McCain brought him up at the third debate, suggesting that Obama wanted to raise his taxes and "spread the wealth around," Obama operatives worried that the candidate had been somehow set up—that Joe, who had chatted briefly with Obama at a rally, had been sent there to entrap the candidate before the cameras (a clip had already shown up on YouTube). A quick run of computer databases suggested that if Joe was a plant, he was a poor one. He was not a licensed plumber, he had some messy court papers dealing with his family life, his name wasn't Joe (his real name was Samuel Wurzelbacher) and it was unlikely that Obama's plan would actually raise his taxes.

As usual with the McCain campaign, Joe the Plumber had more to do with impulse than planning. As Lindsey Graham told the story, he had been awakened at 4:30 on the morning of the final debate. It was McCain on the phone. "I can't sleep," said the candidate. "Well, now neither can I," said a sleepy Graham. He stumbled on down to McCain's hotel room. McCain was vibrating with nervous energy, rehearsing his lines on his least favorite subject, the economy. He was racing through a section on taxes, not really paying attention to the words, and said, "Obama will raise taxes, raise taxes on ordinary folks like Joe the Plumber." Graham perked up, as did Cindy, who was sitting there patiently with her agitated husband. "John, what was that you just said?" Cindy asked. "About the plumber?" Lindsey added. The three spent the rest of the session talking about how to work him into the debate.

Joe the Plumber and McCain's nervous energy failed to deliver the knockout blow required for the final debate. With still almost three weeks to go until Election Day, to the Obamaites the biggest threat now seemed to be overconfidence. On one of the cable shows, Bob Shrum, who had run the 2004 John Kerry campaign, had already declared that Obama was going to be the next president of the United States. A reporter sent an e-mail to Obama adman Jim Margolis informing him of Shrum's prediction, along with a reminder that Shrum was also the guy who—shortly after the first exit polls wrongly predicted a Kerry victory on Election Day 2004—had said to Senator Kerry, "May I be the first to call you Mr. President." Margolis quickly wrote back, "Oh, my God, we're doomed."

Axelrod's gloomy nature was working overtime, imagining scenarios that would bring the whole triumphant processional to a nightmare ending. He understood that late-deciding voters tended to be less informed (and thus susceptible to smears and rumors) and more conservative. Axelrod worried that the race would tighten in the late going as these voters came off the fence. His fear was that Obama's comfortable lead would dwindle to a few points. Axelrod had always dismissed race as a nonissue in the campaign and chastised news organizations (especially NEWSWEEK) for writing about it. But the more he scoffed at talk of race, the more it clearly gnawed at him. He had come up in the cauldron of racial politics in Chicago and prided himself in his ability to make Obama appealing to white voters. But on some level, he couldn't quite believe it would work out.

On a conference call with his staff after the third debate, Obama warned against overconfidence. He reminded staffers that the campaign had been sure of success once before, only to see victory slip away. His words were later posted in the bathroom at the headquarters on North Michigan Avenue: FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE FEELING GIDDY OR COCKY OR THINK THIS IS ALL SET, I HAVE JUST TWO WORDS FOR YOU: NEW HAMPSHIRE.

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