What Does John McCain Need to Do Tonight?

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Yes, McCain needs a game-changer, but not the kind that we’ve been seeing out of a campaign that seems to have lost any sense of a strategy as it lurches toward the finish line, news cycle by news cycle. More and more national polls are giving Obama a lead that is outside the margin of error, and it is looking even worse in many of the battleground states. If those polls are right and the election were today, the result would be an electoral college blowout.

More to the point: Take a look at that jaw-dropping Gallup poll that shows more than 9 out of 10 Americans believe that the country is the wrong track. With the nation in that frame of mind, it’s hard to believe that talking about Obama’s associations with a figure from the 1960s is going to gain McCain much ground. Nor will talking about earmarks, or recycling his stump speech jokes about how the federal government is studying the DNA of bears. These items aren’t even a rounding error in the huge federal budget, and sound even smaller in the wake of last week’s $700-billion bailout package. And all this is even before most Americans have taken a look at the quarterly statements they will be receiving in coming days that show just how badly their 401(k)s and other investments have been hit.

“He needs to give a positive vision for the country–not small ball, not earmarks,” says former Ronald Reagan Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein, who was one of the few GOP establishment figures to support McCain in his 2000 Republican primary bid. “This is a big election, about big ideas. He is talking about DNA of bears. It’s time to be big and bold.” But Duberstein adds, in an assessment that I’m hearing from other Republicans as well: “I don’t know if the McCain campaign can do it.”