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Commentary: Time for John McCain to turn up the heat

  • Story Highlights
  • Ed Rollins: McCain has endured many challenges in his campaign
  • Rollins: None of that compares to what he faces in the weeks ahead
  • McCain must paint a picture of policies Obama would implement, he says
  • Rollins: Personal attacks on Obama won't work and could backfire
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By Ed Rollins
CNN Contributor
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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 McCain should attack Obama's policies but not his character.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- With four weeks to go till Election Day, the road ahead for John McCain is straight up the side of an ice-covered mountain.

But John McCain, the courageous, self-described maverick of the Senate, has been overcoming obstacles and surviving near-death experiences all his life.

Since announcing his exploratory committee five days after his party's shellacking in the 2006 midterm elections, John McCain's campaign has been a roller coaster of ups and downs.

Some of the obstacles he has had to overcome were self-inflicted. Others were placed in his path by a commander in chief who is now tied for the lowest approval rating in history and will certainly break that record before leaving office next January 20.

According to the latest Gallup polling, 87 percent of the country thinks the economic picture is getting worse -- another record. The Republican brand is as damaged as at any time since the Watergate scandal 35 years ago. The country is facing the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression nearly eight decades ago.

With all of the bumps in the road since he announced for president on David Letterman's show in March, 2007, McCain has yet to face the kind of intense test that awaits him in the closing weeks of the campaign. But nobody is yet willing to say he can't win. His victory is doubtful but not impossible.

The financial crisis bailout vote is behind him. But the crisis isn't. The Sarah Palin debate (Joe Biden was also there) is now behind him.

A confident, charming Sarah Palin did everything in her debate that could be expected. There is little more she can do but rally the base. The debate on the Iraq war and the surge or on who would be the better commander in chief is not as relevant today to voters. The completion of the war is still ahead, but that's after November.

What's ahead for John McCain is a short 30 days to make voters take a second look at him and a hard look at what an Obama presidency will bring.

Obama is still an unknown entity. The Senate's most junior member was ranked 99th in seniority when he announced he was running for president on February 11, 2007.

Since then, we have seen thousands of pictures and heard hundreds of speeches and watched in amazement as his team has put together a brilliant campaign that beat back the Democratic establishment candidate Hillary Clinton. But we still don't know him.

What his campaign has done is create a "brand" that represents change. But voters don't know what that means. Hillary tried to make the Democratic race about her qualifications versus his. Experience as a brand failed miserably. "Experience" represented the status quo in Washington and that's just what Americans didn't want.

John McCain tried to do the same thing. He knew he was the better candidate -- the more experienced candidate who could get things done in Washington. He resented being tied to Bush's failed policies or even to his party's ideology. He was an independent, a maverick who was going to be different.

Maverick (who voted with Bush 90 percent of the time) vs. Change was still a losing argument. So as we come to the end of the most expensive and longest running campaign in history, the polling numbers and the battleground states are all moving in Obama's favor. What are McCain's options to turn this race around?

From what I hear, the campaign's plans are to put John McCain back in the seat of his A-4 Skyhawk bomber and drop bomb after bomb on Obama to try to convince voters he is unfit to lead.

I think that formula will lead to failure, just as Hillary Clinton's strategy failed.

Personal attacks won't work this late in the campaign and may backfire on McCain. He must attack Obama's policy and spending proposals. iReport.com: Do you support the recent campaign attacks?

When you are fighting a brand, you must redefine the brand. "Change" means what? Is change the "Robin Hood tax policies" of traditional Democrats that shifts earned wealth from productive people and small businesses that create jobs to those who have not had the same success?

Is change adding billions of new entitlement programs as promised by Obama in a time of record deficits? That is certain to make the recession deeper and last longer.

Is change altering our spending priorities away from national defense and weakening our military or homeland security in a time of uncertainty both at home and abroad?

With two debates left and four weeks for a national dialogue, let's find out who these guys really are and what direction they want to take this country. We are still in a war on two fronts. We are in an economic disaster. America has no faith in the political or financial leadership in this country.

Democrats will still control both houses of Congress and add more House and Senate members after this election. I promise you they are not about change. They are about taxing and spending.

Electing President Obama would eliminate important checks and balances on liberal Democratic power in Washington and that could be a disaster. It was a disaster when Bush and the Republicans controlled it all. It was a disaster when Clinton and the Democrats controlled it all.

John McCain, your challenge is to tell us what Obama's change means! Is it just rhetoric, or if not, is it really change in a bad direction? Don't waste your time beating up on him. Challenge his ideas and promises.

If you can do it effectively, you might come back from the deficit you now face. If you can't, you face the possibility of an electoral and popular defeat of landslide proportions.

The good thing about ice is it melts with heat. Mr Maverick, turn up the heat!

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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