Republican presidential candidate Sen.John McCain (AZ) reacts to a question from the audience at a town hall meeting in Denver on October 2, 2008. (UPI Photo/Gary C. Caskey) | License Photo
WASHINGTON, Oct. 3 (UPI) -- What profiteth John McCain if his vice presidential candidate wins her debate but he gives up on Michigan?
The McCain campaign's decision to give up the fight in Michigan is one of the stupidest tactical decisions made in this presidential campaign. Only Al Gore's refusal to let President Bill Clinton campaign for him in key states eight years ago even approaches it. If Sen. McCain, R-Ariz., loses, it is likely to rank alongside his failure in the first presidential debate as one of the two decisive turning points in the campaign.
For McCain must have Michigan. With 17 Electoral College votes, it is one of the key prizes in the Midwest, and its influence extends into its neighboring states, too.
To win, McCain must hold on to Florida and Ohio -- two states where he was looking strong until his meltdown of the past few weeks, and where he is now struggling to run neck-and-neck.
For Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the Democratic presidential nominee, to win, he must take Pennsylvania and Michigan. If McCain can win either Michigan or Pennsylvania, he wins the presidency. It's as simple as that.
Pennsylvania has voted Democratic in every presidential election for the past 20 years. Obama was dangerously weak there until the recent turnaround in his fortunes. Now he looks close to having a lock on the place. And McCain has just handed him Michigan on a platter.
There is the strong hint of panic and meltdown about the McCain camp's public ceding of Michigan. The McCain campaign in the state was not consulted about it in advance -- an absurd decision that from his Navy background alone McCain never should have countenanced. The staff work involved was obviously superficial, hasty and emotion-driven.
All of McCain's woes are self-inflicted. His debate preparation team and strategy over the past few weeks have proved disastrous. He still hasn't begun to put together an economic crisis message and measures package that matches up to the gravity of the situation. The stunt of flying back to Washington to help the bailout measure go through Congress wasn't backed by any substantive and credible policy changes.
Obama is equally complacent and feckless on the economic crisis, but his party hasn't been running the federal government for the past eight years and it wasn't responsible for the policies that led to the financial catastrophe.
Also, McCain and his inner circle completely blew it in their handling of Gov. Sarah Palin. They let themselves get spooked by the relentless attacks and ridicule she received from the mainstream media and offered her up as a sacrificial lamb to hostile liberal cross-examiners like Charles Gibson and Katie Couric.
The McCain team should have ignored the inherently hostile liberal television news networks completely and simply had Palin deliver one knockout speech after another, emphasizing her blue-collar, working-mom appeal in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Ohio. They had the perfect wordsmith in Matthew Scully, the conservative speechwriter who helped her craft her great speech to the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., that wowed 40 million viewers. Instead, they bought into the Beltway Insiders' Conventional Wisdom and tried to turn Palin into as useless a mediocrity as they were themselves.
When Palin was allowed to stand on her own feet Thursday night in the vice presidential debate with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., she was excellent. For the record, so was Biden. Both vice presidential nominees were vastly more impressive once they were liberated from the dead hand of the fussy, inept micromanagers McCain and Obama had imposed on them.
More than anything, though, McCain has been buried in Michigan by the great financial crisis and by the childish performance of the 133 Know-Nothing Republicans who rejected the $700 billion emergency bailout measure in the House of Representatives.
The McCain campaign has since been paying dearly for its fiscal illiteracy and for McCain's continued loyalty to and dependence on the catastrophic former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, as his chief economic adviser.
The McCain camp actually had a lot going for it in Michigan -- more, in fact, than it had either earned or deserved. McCain's state campaign manager, Saul Anuzis, has been a standout among the current extremely mediocre crop of Republican strategists and state campaign operatives the candidate has gathered.
With McCain giving up on Michigan, he can expect to drown in Ohio, too. Virginia, where he seemed to be challenging Obama, is now 5 to 10 points ahead for the Democratic candidate.
McCain now faces the prospect of a bigger whipping than the hapless Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., received from President George W. Bush four years ago. With more than 30 days of campaigning still to go, he actually has time to turn it around, and it's clear what he has to do:
First, fire Phil Gramm and craft at lightning speed and white-hot heat a tough but credible financial and economic position that will reassure voters about saving the economic stability for the nation. Forget about tax cuts. Slash government spending and tell it like it is.
Second, unleash Palin as a populist attack dog with handcrafted speeches by the best in the business and focus her on the four or five key bellwether states.
Third, take off the gloves and go after Obama's personal record all the way. Obama's surrogates have not spared McCain and Palin a single ugly personal slur on their health, family life or anything else. Hit back the Chicago way.
So far, McCain has shown not the slightest inclination to do any of these three things. Unless he swallows his famous pride and embraces them fast, he can start unpacking for that long retirement back in Arizona.
(Commentary by Martin Sieff)