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Well, with the McCain and Obama teams out at Hofstra University on Long Island, measuring the height of chairs and size of water glasses ahead of tomorrow night’s debate, the remainder of the campaign is looking like a toe-to-toe slog with increasingly concrete proposals being deployed, to increasingly diminishing returns.

Following Obama’s unveiling of a plan allowing for people to tap their 401k retirement funds for emergency needs without penalty tax, ending the tax on unemployment benefits — a weird thing in itself — and jobs grants for small business — McCain came out with his, which involved ending the tax on unemployment benefits and a cut in the capital gains tax from 15% to 7.5%.

The go around was advantage Obama again, who has gained traction repeatedly by going against political wisdom, and holding back a move until McCain has had time to announce three contradictory things in a morning and be contradicted on two of them by Sarah Palin. Obama then slides in with a more comprehensive plan and strengthens the impression that he is, in fact, already the President, and the bloke yapping around his heels is just some crazy old guy.

So if this really is an Obama strategy, rather than the campaign’s general air of laid-back, coll knitwear-wearing blitheness yielding unintended political benefits, big ups to them, for knowing their business.

So if, as I said, the toe-to-toe slog continues, this campaign will play out in a mood of grinding boredom. There seems to be some human rule that things run out of steam just before they actually conclude — a sudden ennui hits you in the middle of the last act of Chekhov or Pinter (or in the case of Williamson, in the queue for tickets) — and we’re in it now. Couldn’t we have an October surprise with no casualties, but a lot of sturm und drang? Neat little invasion, empty plane crashing into empty building, summat like that.

That is what the McCain campaign wants most of all of course. Anything, anything at all. Because they keep striking these flints on the ground — Bill Ayers, alleged voter fraud by the social activist group ACORN, etc — is even beginning to strike a spark. It may even be counterproductive.

You can’t go broke underestimating the stupidity of the public etc, but the Republicans are really testing this on the Ayers case. Obama had most contact with Ayers under the auspices of the Annenberg Trust, established by a former Nixon cabinet member. ACORN has been signing people up left right and centre — as have hundreds of groups from all sides of politics, including the NRA and Right To Life — and like ACORN, they are required to hand in every voter registration form they receive, whether they believe it’s fraudulent or not.

If there is an open and deliberate attempt to persuade people to vote fraudulently, that’s a different matter, but the main evidence at the moment appears to be paid canvassers padding their registration quotas. It’s not enough, it would seem, to change the terms of debate, and all it serves to do is make the Republicans look plaintive and petitioning and outside the main game.

That would appear to be the conclusion from the polls in any case. Obama is really racking up some impressive leads here. There isn’t a single 2004 Democratic state in play now — New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota are all showing double digit leads for Obama.

Of 2004 Red states, leads in Iowa, Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia are all clear of 5% for Obama as an average across all polls, and second tier gains such as North Carolina and Missouri are showing a tie-2% lead. Even North Dakota — from which the Obama campaign withdrew a fortnight ago — is showing a 2% lead. If Obama can win a campaign in which he’s had no-one the ground for a fortnight, then ask him to stroll out for a drink on the yacht sometime.

The great enigma is Ohio, on which you can get any poll you like — from a five per cent Obama win to a two per cent McCain victory. But the point now is that McCain must have Ohio, while Obama doesn’t need it — he has a number of paths to victory. This may be the election that busts the Ohio mythology for all time.

Of course, the hidden element in all this is money. The Obama campaign has eighty million to spend in the last two weeks — which is the entire amount McCain has been able to spend in the period since the convention, after accepting state funding. Obama suckered him big time on that — said he’d agree to public funding if McCain would, and then double-crossed him magnificently.

Indeed it was a double double cross, the Obama team relying on the Republicans fear that they wouldn’t be able to get their base to cough up for Walnuts, coupled with their belief that the decent old Democrats would line up like suckers to receive their priss-slap. Not this time, baby.

The Obama campaign is now negotiating to buy a half hour of prime time for the days before November 4, a type of campaigning once common, but not used for some time. That would be on top of the wall-to-wall thirty and sixty seconders which in some areas — Northern Virginia for example — are outnumbering McCain spots by ten or fifteen to one.

Now in the lead up to the debate, the focus has turned to John McCain and “what he must say”. McCain has taken the underdog role — “we’re six points behind in the polls, the media has written us off (big booing), and Obama is already measuring the drapes in the White House” — and then slips into self-parody “(pause) … we’ve got him right where we want him”. With McCain having exhausted every strategy in the book, the Right has descended into fully magical thinking, with a new demand to “unleash the real McCain”.

Oh come on, the real McCain? Really? Who is the real McCain? From the mid 70s onwards he was naval liasion to the Senate — i.e. a state lobbyist — before becoming a congressman and then a Senator. Hilariously for a party grooving on free enterprise, the dude’s been a lifelong public servant. Including a five year junket in Hanoi.

The real McCain is a professional politician, with a bunch of social liberal policies (and other conservative ones). McCain’s achievements are written in a series of bills — McCain-Feingold is the most prominent — the other half of wich is a prominent liberal democrat. He’s an insider and deal-maker, the sort of person who wants to be a “chairman of the board” Republican , not a values warrior.

We’ve seen the real McCain. Then we saw the fake McCain. And the public doesn’t want either of them. The chorus of “unleash the real McCain”, including today McCain’s brother Joe, is simply fantasy — his supporters cannot believe that the real McCain has been seen and is being rejected. Which is funny really. For a group whose love of the life and works of Winston Spencer Churchill borders on ancestor-worship, they seem particularly unware of the 1945 election.

What the “unleash McCain” crowd want is for the nation to be obsessed as they are, about the connections a left-liberal person might make on the rise to a position of national power. Just as any rightwinger will at some point come into contact with the lower depths of their own political tradition — especially in the US — so too on the left you meet some strange folks along the way.

The weird thing is that Americans understand that more than most. With twelve thousand homicides a year and a prison population of two million, well, everyone knows bad boys. Violence is in the air in American life like petrol fumes in a servo forecourt. People are less shocked by its appearance in everyday life than elsewhere.

The whole twisted story of Ayers et al’s violent campaign against US imperialism is like a story about theological difficulties in the early church, a list of dead bishops.

But no evidence to the contrary will disabuse them that this matters. Let’s face it, the McCain campaign is surrounded by people living off his life story — insider sybarites who never went near a recruiting office, talking about “country first”. As a Republican President socialises the economy, what can they do? Where can they go? Nothing holds their ideology together anymore.

The collapse of this hybrid Republican ideology is total. And the Obama campaign is eyeing the possibility of the ultimate prize — making 60 Senate seats, a filibuster proof majority. That was out of the question two months ago, the Dems were hoping for a five seat gain to give them 53-54 seats plus two independents, smegma stain Joe Lieberman included therein.

Now races like Minnesota and migod Alaska, hitherto written off by the Dems, are opening up, and it’s those four or five races which might on the outside deliver the Dems total control of the legislative and executive branches — and thus de facto the judicial branch. It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to remake America. That should have been enough to scare the base back to the GOP. That they can’t get there is a measure of where we’re at.

CNN live keeps cutting back to the Hofstra Universtity debate site — an empty room being set up for a debate. It has a Warholesquelly compelling quality to it.

And, as we head into the last act, no jokes, no sharps, and godhelpus, no guns.

Peter Fray

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