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Losing a presidential race is not an easy thing. Losing the primary is one thing. But making it to the finals, so close you can almost taste it, and then watching it slip through your fingers is one of those experiences from which few people ever fully recover.

If it's a race for re-election, a first term that doesn't become a second, at least you can go off, build the library and console yourself that you're still a member of the club. If you're young enough, you can convince yourself that there is always next time, four years down the road.

There will be no such solace for John McCain if he loses. He tried twice. He made it to the finals. He is, frankly, too old to try again. It will be someone else's turn next time.

And it's not clear, even if the talking heads don't want to admit it, that there is anything he can do now to change an outcome that is feeling more certain with each passing day.

At this point, almost everything that matters is beyond McCain's control. He can't control the fact that the Dow has collapsed, that Joe the Plumber has a lien on his house, that Sarah Palin doesn't read newspapers, or that Barack Obama doesn't make mistakes. He can't even begin to match Obama in terms of organization or money.

He is on the verge of the final days of a campaign that he will second guess for the rest of his life.

McCain may not be able to do anything to change the numbers on Nov. 4. But there is one thing he can do. He can decide how he will go out, whether the candidate America remembers will be the one who started this race, the one who served in the Senate with distinction, the one who crossed congressional aisles to do what was right, the one who stood up for Kerry when he was being swift-boated, the one who championed campaign finance reform, the depoliticization of the judiciary and fairness in immigration reform, the one who really did put country first for decades; or a bad copy of the guy who beat him by playing dirty politics in 2000.

John McCain brought tears to my eyes in 1988 when he led the Republican Convention in the Pledge of Allegiance. He made me believe there was such a thing as principle when he stood up to the dirt balls trashing him in 2000, stood up to the dirt balls trashing Kerry in 2004, stood up to the talk-show hosts spreading anti-immigrant ire in 2007.

I haven't seen that guy lately. I haven't seen the guy who carried his own briefcase and was willing to take every question and do his best to tell the truth in answering them.What I've seen is another desperate politician tossing mud, looking for cheap shots and funding robocalls instead of denouncing them.

Maybe with the desire for change as great as it is, there was never a chance for the guy McCain used to be. It may be too late for him to win with dignity, but there is still time for him to lose that way.

And it matters.

It will matter to him for the rest of his life. It matters to the process he has fought for and to the country to which he has dedicated his life. He deserves a better last act than the bad jokes of the Palin fiasco. Two weeks isn't much time. But it's time enough to change the way the ending feels, if not how it plays.

©Creators Syndicate Inc.