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What's happened to the McCain we knew?

At a rally weeks ago, John McCain leaned into a microphone and asked in the tone of a dime-store pitchman: "Who is Barack Obama?"

The Republican presidential candidate could look in a mirror and ask that of himself, particularly after Wednesday night's debate.

Where is the Arizona senator, the reformer, the "straight talker" who investigated Republican corruption in the Indian casino mess? Where is the author of campaign finance reform? Where did the friend of the poor immigrant go?

Do the haters now possess the soul of the onetime defender of tax justice?

McCain, who waited years to elbow George W. Bush out of the way, appears to have become all of those Republican insiders he once despised:

* Richard Nixon, the master of dirty tricks who tried to deploy the FBI for partisan purposes.

* Karl Rove, the exploiter of religious, sexual and reproductive wedge issues.

* Bush himself, who would follow any calculating jerk's advice, particularly if it was risky, hard right and unyielding.

* And finally, the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy, R-Wis., the grinning purveyor of the patriotism smear.

"And you launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers' living room," McCain claimed in the third debate, referring to William Ayers, a onetime terrorist whom Obama repudiated.

McCain went on, "Obama chooses to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he had bombed more, and he had a long association with him."

McCain's choice for vice president, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had already accused Obama of "palling around with a terrorist."

Overnight Friday, the McCain forces ramped it up. I got a recorded message from the Republican National Committee at my Virginia home that said in part:

"Hello, I'm calling for the RNC and John McCain because you ought to know that Barack Obama has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers . . ."

Obama debunked the smear during the debate. It is the worst I ever heard about that one candidate delivered against another.

None of McCain's, Palin's or the RNC's charges are true. Nothing can make them so. Yet McCain & Co. keep piling it on, broadening the lie from "palled around," to "associate with" and now "worked closely."

The big lie worked for McCarthy, Nixon, Rove, Bush and Adolf Hitler. And it may work again in this era of chainsaw politics. It's not funny or forgiveable. Should it disqualify McCain on grounds of character?

Now that McCain himself has rolled around in the gutter on national television, what will be left of presidential majesty, the demeanor of a chief of state, if he gets elected?

McCain's intellect and leadership qualifications were already under scrutiny because of his choice of Palin. He did not know her, and she was not vetted.

Putting Palin on the ticket was the biggest executive decision McCain ever made in civilian life. McCain did not know her unmarried daughter was pregnant, or that it was a bipartisan legislative body that probed Palin's abuse of power.

McCain did not know in July that Palin's husband, Todd, lolled around the governor's office behaving like her unelected viceroy. McCain does now.

Yet on Wednesday, McCain called her "a role model."

"She'll be my partner," said McCain, 72, who has had two major bouts with skin cancer.

There are many, including Republicans, who believe that McCain put the nation at risk by linking our fate to Palin. Just why he did it is still unfolding. There are persistent reports that McCain was influenced by William Kristol, now a New York Times columnist, who a decade ago was a leading architect of our invasion of Iraq.


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