After a lacklustre debate, John McCain now has less than four weeks to turn the race for the White House around, and pundits are beginning to wonder whether the Republican who once dubbed himself the comeback kid can win.
A day after McCain faced off in the second of three debates against Barack Obama, political observers said the exchange failed to up-end the frontrunner status of his Democratic rival.
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“Despite John McCain's best efforts, the Arizona senator didn't knock Mr Obama from his cool evasion or even do much to rebut the Democrat's talking points,” the conservative Wall Street Journal wrote the morning after the debate.
“This isn't enough to change the dynamics of the race.”
Snap polls by US television networks awarded the debate – the second of a trio of presidential clashes in the run-up to the November 4 vote – to Obama.
Democrats are now optimistic that – with two of three rhetorical contests over and both won by Obama according to opinion polls – the Illinois senator is an increasingly good bet to clinch the election.
“The race is over” crowed Howard Wolfson, a former spokesman for Hillary Clinton, one of several Democratic rivals vanquished by Obama en route to the sealing the nomination.
Longtime Washington pundit Roger Simon pronounced neither McCain nor Obama the winner, saying that from his vantage point, neither candidate succeeded in “delivering a knockout punch.”
“The trouble for John McCain, however, is that he needed one,” wrote Simon, a writer for the Politico website.
Obama continued to sound an upbeat note on the stump in the midwestern state of Indiana the day after the debate, promising Americans there were “better days ahead” despite plummeting global stock markets, rising job losses and dark clouds of economic gloom.
McCain appeared at a campaign rally with running mate Sarah Palin in the battleground state of Pennsylvania.
Inceasingly nasty battle
Trailing in most national polls, the Republican White House hopeful went to Tuesday's debate armed with an ambitious $US300 billion ($A423.13 billion) surprise plan to buy up the bad American mortgages that helped tip the global economy into crisis.
But the gambit failed to convince voters and the US political class that Obama is not be trusted at the helm of state and that McCain is in fact, the best choice to lead the country.
Political observers noted that support for the Democratic contender had been growing leading into Tuesday's face-off, and said they saw nothing in the debate that was likely to change that, including in a handful of all-important in battleground states as time runs out before the election.
And pundits continued, despite the generally civil exchanges of Tuesday's encounter, to remark upon the markedly nasty tone between the two candidates.
The New York Times excoriated McCain and Alaska governor Sarah Palin for the tone of the Arizona senator's campaign.
“Ninety minutes of forced cordiality did not erase the dismal ugliness of his campaign in recent weeks, nor did it leave us with much hope that he would not just return to the same dismal ugliness on Wednesday,” it lamented.
“We certainly expected better from Mr McCain who once showed withering contempt for win-at-any-cost politics,” it said.
McCain, widely criticised for rarely looking at Obama during their first debate two weeks ago, let his dislike of his opponent show again, referring to him as “that one” in a tense exchange over energy.
A CNN national poll after the debate found that 54 per cent of those asked thought Obama won and 30 per cent said McCain was victorious.
A CBS survey also gave the debate to Obama – 40 per cent to 26 per cent.
Gallup's daily tracking poll has reflected the high stakes for McCain, giving Obama a nine point lead nationally, while the Democratic nominee is also widening his edge in key battleground states.