After another crazy week in the presidential campaign, we now know for sure that John McCain's passion for gambling extends well beyond occasional trips to casinos.
Whether it's at the craps table he's known to frequent or on the campaign trail, McCain is a gut player who relishes high-stakes risk-taking. If not for his solid debate performance Friday night, the Arizona senator might have derailed his entire campaign last week with his roll-of-the-dice announcement that he was suspending his campaign and seeking to delay the first presidential debate so he could help negotiate a financial bailout package in the works on Capitol Hill.
Amid Democratic charges that McCain, 72, was dodging the debate and that his presence might hamper delicate congressional negotiations on the $700-billion deal, the Republican nominee wound up folding. Without clearly explaining his position on the bailout, McCain abruptly professed optimism that a deal was near on Friday, left Washington and joined Barack Obama at Ole Miss.
Two quickie polls declared the debate a win for Obama, but a sharp McCain aggressively sought to cast the Illinois senator as a naive lightweight on foreign policy. It's hard to see how the forum was a game-changer. Assuming a deal is reached to stabilize the financial markets soon, McCain's dramatic decision to throw himself into the middle of the bailout discussions, and then pull out, may wind up a mere blip in the campaign.
Still, the move underscored the audacious and unpredictable way McCain often makes decisions.
While the sometimes painfully reflective Democratic nominee's campaign mantra is "No drama Obama," the McCain campaign has the vibe of an action thriller. Hold onto your popcorn because you never know what's coming next.
"I make (decisions as) quickly as I can, quicker than the other fellow, if I can," McCain said in his 2002 book, Worth the Fighting For. "Often my haste is a mistake, but I live with the consequences without complaint."
We don't know yet the consequences of McCain's biggest gamble — picking as his running mate someone he barely knew, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
The safe bet for McCain would have been Mitt Romney, whose financial acumen could have come in handy around now. Even though polls showed a neck-and-neck race, which is usually a time for conservative thinking on big decisions, McCain chose to shock the political world with a wildly unexpected choice.
Conservative activists are thrilled with Palin but in the weeks since her introduction to the national stage, conservative columnists such as George Will and David Brooks have begun questioning her fitness for the job and, by extension, McCain's decision to bring her onto the ticket.
Now, after another awkward Palin interview, the latest with CBS's Katie Couric, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, who initially defended Palin, wrote a column calling for her to step down.
"If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself,'' Parker wrote. "If Palin were a man, we'd all be guffawing, just as we do every time Joe Biden tickles the back of his throat with his toes."
The good news for Palin is that expectations could not be lower for her when she debates Biden on Thursday night in St. Louis.
"Mostly vice presidential debates don't matter, but the Palin-Biden debate will be as important a debate as we had Friday,'' said Republican strategist George LeMieux of Fort Lauderdale. "I don't think Joe Biden is going to factor much into the debate. It's going to be Sarah Palin vs. (moderator) Gwen Ifill."
The remaining two presidential debates will be far more focused on the economy, where polls show voters trust Obama over McCain. Of course, McCain has shown a knack for stunning surprises when his campaign looks distressed, so there's no telling what's in store over the next 37 days.
As much as McCain wants voters to see Obama as an untested, risky choice when America is facing economic turmoil and two wars, McCain's volatile campaign style is giving critics ammunition to paint the seasoned Republican as the more unpredictable choice.
"(Obama's) just been steady throughout. McCain has been more erratic,'' David Plouffe, Obama's national campaign manager, said Saturday. "This is clearly not about principle, it's about politics. … As a campaign, they tend to chase news cycles as opposed to having a consistent message."
Obama is said to be an enthusiastic poker player, but successful poker involves thought and skill. Craps, McCain's preference, is not much more than luck.
That McCain is still strongly competitive in the race for the White House in such an anti-Republican climate is testament to how well he's beating the house odds already. Then again, luck only holds out so long for those who keep betting the pot.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at email@example.com or (727)893-8241.