McCain’s wily moves

The Commission on Presidential Debates had it right the first time.

Last November, when the commission announced the schedule for debates, it said the first session, set for Friday night in Oxford, Miss., would concern domestic policy.

Later, however, they changed their minds — the first debate would be about foreign policy and national security.

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So now, in the middle of a severe financial crisis, are we going to hear the candidates talk exclusively about foreign policy and national security?

Of course not. We’ll probably have some sort of hybrid affair, with the candidates discussing the economy under the guise of national security. But it won’t be fully about the economy, which is probably not something organizers would choose if they could do it all again.

In any event, the mismatch between events and debate plans just highlights how much the presidential race has changed since the debates were first scheduled. Back then, John McCainJohn Sidney McCainDemocrats hammer Trump for entertaining false birther theory about Harris Trump rips Bill Maher as 'exhausted, gaunt and weak' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - The choice: Biden-Harris vs. Trump-Pence MORE was on the stump every day talking about “the transcendent challenge of our time” — that is, defeating radical Islamic terrorism, both in Iraq and in the greater war on terror.

McCain, who bet his candidacy on the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, won his bet, but now watches as the public’s concern about his top issue fades.

Back in September 2007, when pollsters for The Washington Post and ABC News asked registered voters for the “single most important issue” in their choice for president, 35 percent said the war in Iraq, with an additional 6 percent saying terrorism and national security.

That was 41 percent who were most concerned about the issues that just happened to be McCain’s strong suit, against just 11 percent for whom the economy was the most important issue.

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Now, we have a new poll from the Post and ABC, and 50 percent call the economy the single most important factor in determining their vote.

The war in Iraq? Just 9 percent say it’s their top concern, with 7 percent saying they’re most worried about terrorism and national security.

So now, the score is 16 percent for the issues that are McCain’s specialty, versus 50 percent for the economy.

Not surprisingly, the Post poll showed Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaUS blocking private charter flights to Cuba Biden, Harris to address Democratic convention from Chase Center in Delaware Kamala Harris is now under the protection of Secret Service: report MORE with a big lead over McCain — nine points. McCain’s top pollster, Bill McInturff, spent Wednesday morning telling reporters the poll wasn’t accurate because it over-counted Democrats.

Maybe that’s true. And indeed, other polls show little change — a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released just hours after the Post/ABC survey showed Obama with just a two-point lead.

But there’s no doubt that the issues have been moving away from McCain, and he has struggled to keep up.

In the Journal/NBC poll, 56 percent of those surveyed named either the economy, the financial crisis or energy costs as their top priority.

Iraq? Twelve percent.

Terrorism? Nine percent — for a total of 21 percent for McCain’s issues.

Even when the Journal/NBC pollsters asked whether voters were deeply concerned about an “international crisis such as Iran or Russia and the nation of Georgia,” a whopping 4 percent named it as their top priority.

So with all the other things going against him — the president’s approval ratings in the cellar, voters increasingly identifying with the Democratic Party, the uphill battle of trying to succeed a two-term president of his own party — McCain has had to deal with the ground shifting underneath him.

He has at times messed up badly — think “the fundamentals of the economy are strong” — but overall, he has done a rather brilliant job of it.

This week, he threw Barack Obama off balance — again — simply by arguing that senators who are the de facto leaders of their party should be in Washington when one of the most consequential congressional actions in decades is being hammered out.

It was a shrewd move, and it left Obama, for all his advantages, looking overly cautious and a bit disengaged.

Back in February, when McCain won the Republican nomination, there were those in the GOP who worried that he would be like Bob Dole — that he would run a toothless campaign and be fated, and perhaps content, to lose gracefully.

Turns out they underestimated John McCain.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: byork@nationalreview.com