Editor's note: Ed Rollins, who served as political director for President Reagan, is a Republican strategist who was national chairman of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign.
Ed Rollins says the financial crisis is an uncontrollable event dominating the presidential campaign.
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In running a campaign, you have controllables, and you have uncontrollables.
Controllables are what the candidate says in his speeches; where he appears, who he picks as a running mate, how much money he raises and how he spends it, and the content of his commercials. Uncontrollables are what the other side does and events of nature that are beyond your control.
In planning your campaign strategy, you must be near perfect in the things you control.
But you also must prepare for the things that you don't control. How a campaign handles outside events and how you react to your opponent's attacks can sink a campaign. Miscues or missteps are magnified during moments of crisis.
President Bush's administration was mortally damaged by the mishandling of Katrina. It became a symbol of an administration that could do nothing right.
The financial meltdown last week was the Katrina equivalent in this campaign.
And it was more than just an uncontrollable event. It was a game-changer. Whatever else the campaigns want to talk about, nothing will matter more than the perception of "who gets it." The winner should be the man who appears to understand these financial problems and can convince the country that he can be the "lifeguard" who can rescue ordinary Americans from drowning in this sea of economic uncertainty.
Several weeks ago, I wrote in this space that a campaign needs to win most of the remaining weeks in order to be successful in winning an election. I compared it to fighters winning the rounds in order to win the fight.
In the period since the Republican convention, Gov. Sarah Palin won the "weeks" for her team. She dominated the media. She moved poll numbers favorably, and her addition created an energy that could be seen in the large crowds. There was a new enthusiasm among the Republican base.
In the midst of the financial crisis last week, it was John McCain's turn to pick up the ball and run with it. He didn't do it very well. He used the Bush administration talking points on Monday: The "all the fundamentals are fine" speech! It was perceived as a disaster.
Barack Obama's response wasn't much better. He took no position but jumped on McCain for saying things were OK. On Tuesday, McCain switched positions from "no bailouts" to "bailouts are needed." Obama still took no position.
His running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, said rich Americans should be patriotic and pay more taxes. A more idiotic statement has never been uttered! But then he also said last week that people in financial trouble should be able to renegotiate their interest and the principal on their housing loans. The idea of renegotiating how much you borrowed is a novel approach that should thrill the banks.
By Friday, McCain was back against bailouts. Bush and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wanted to bail out everybody with taxpayers' money. (How about all the guys who lost on the first two weeks of the football season?)
Obama's position was: I think I am going to support Paulson's bailout, but I am going to wait and see what Bush and the Congress propose before I offer my solutions.
There were no profiles in courage last week from the political campaigns. And maybe a rush to judgment wasn't the best course either. But the political terrain has changed. iReport.com: Share your thoughts on the election
A year ago, every political commentator would have argued that the war in Iraq was going to be the overwhelming issue of this campaign. It's barely a discussion point today. That's too bad for McCain, whose expertise in military matters qualifies him to be a better commander in chief.
As McCain has said on several occasions, "I'm going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated."
Educated he will be over the next several weeks. And so will Obama. And so will we.
The first of the presidential debates is Friday night at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It will be hosted by PBS's Jim Lehrer, and it is on foreign policy.
It should have a massive television audience, and as stated above, with his experience, McCain should have the knowledge advantage. If for some reason he doesn't do well, it could provide a boost to the shifting momentum that is slowly going Obama's way. A reassuring McCain performance could alter again the momentum back to him.
Some alleged experts argue that debates don't really matter. I disagree with them. Several presidential debates have altered the race in past elections, and this could be another year in which they really matter.
And debates are controllables. Each candidate prepares his answers and should know the subject matter. And by the time we have the debate on domestic issues in the next few weeks, they each better know what their economic plans are. If the public doesn't believe that you know what you're doing with the economy, the game is over.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.