One danger of a political campaign is not just losing an election, but losing one’s dignity, becoming a laughingstock or a caricature. After three flailing debate performances – including Wednesday night’s twitchy anger – that is a danger now confronting John McCain.

Despite Barack Obama’s limited experience, it is McCain who is coming across as the unelectable one. Not only is McCain short of ideas that come anywhere close to matching the magnitude of the nation’s problems, but his petulant-old-man demeanor isn’t what many Americans want to invite into their living rooms over next four challenging years.

McCain also appears to lack a sense of balance or even reality, such as when he insisted that he was the true victim of negative attacks – and, in essence, telling Americans they shouldn’t believe their lying eyes.

For the past two weeks, Americans have watched McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, regale audiences with her over-the-top charge that Obama is “palling around with terrorists.” Some of Palin’s attacks on Obama have prompted cries of “kill him” or “off with his head,” as Palin tells her audiences that they “get it.”

McCain himself has invited ugly crowd reactions with allusions to Obama’s tenuous links to ex-Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers and the ominous question, “Who is the real Barack Obama?” drawing answers like “terrorist.”

Yet, in Wednesday night’s debate, McCain insisted that he was the real victim on this front because Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights marches, warned that the tone of the Republican campaign could unleash violence in the same indirect way that segregationist Gov. George Wallace did in the 1960s.

So, instead of chastising Palin for her “palling around” remarks or expressing some self-criticism for his own provocative comments, McCain cited Lewis’s cautionary statement as an example of “unacceptable” and “totally inappropriate” rhetoric.

McCain said Lewis “made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history, segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That, to me, was so hurtful.”

In other words, it’s okay to associate Obama with terrorism and question his patriotism, but it’s wrong to warn McCain about risks involved in such incendiary comments.

McCain also bristled at the criticism of his sometimes unruly crowds.

“Let me just say categorically I'm proud of the people that come to our rallies,” McCain said. “I am not going to stand for anybody saying that the people who come to our rallies are anything other than patriotic citizens.”

In demanding that Obama join in denouncing Lewis, McCain insisted that “every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them.” However, he has not rejected Palin’s “palling around” formulation nor spoken up when her comment elicited death threats toward Obama.

Defensiveness

Americans are learning about McCain what many in Washington have known for years. For a politician, the Arizona senator is extremely thin-skinned, getting his back up whenever he perceives someone questioning his honor.

McCain watchers have long taken note of his quick temper and readiness to question the integrity of others. That behavior has led to angry confrontations with Senate colleagues and earned McCain the nickname “Sen. McNasty.”

Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa once said he was so upset at being the target of a McCain tirade that the two Republicans didn’t speak for two years.

Earlier this year, Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi told the Boston Globe that “the thought of [McCain] being President sends a cold chill down my spine. … He is erratic. He is hotheaded. He loses his temper and he worries me.”

McCain’s also known for a cruel sense of humor, such as in 1998 when he mocked Bill and Hillary Clinton’s teen-age daughter, Chelsea.

"Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly?” McCain asked a group of Republicans at a fund-raiser. “Because her father is Janet Reno."

McCain later apologized, and his friends in the national news media literally hid the joke from public view, supposedly to spare Chelsea’s feelings but also protecting McCain’s reputation. [See David Corn’s account in Salon.com.]

However, McCain’s recent Irritable and erratic behavior has grown so pronounced that it is becoming a topic of worried conversation in Washington, with hushed concerns at dinner parties about whether the 72-year-old senator is on medications related to his past cancers or on behavioral drugs seeking to control the excesses of his temper.

Last spring, the McCain campaign reacted to doubts about the candidate’s recovery from repeated bouts of skin cancer by giving a select group of reporters access to some of McCain’s medical records. The reporters, including CNN’s medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, were limited to three hours and not allowed to copy any of the records.

Gupta said later that while the records he reviewed showed no evidence that McCain’s stage-two melanoma has recurred, he could not say whether all relevant documents were included in the piles given to the reporters.

The Palin Pick

The lingering doubts about McCain’s physical – and possibly mental – health were put back in the spotlight because of McCain’s surprise choice of first-term Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

Though the charismatic Palin gave an immediate jolt of excitement to McCain’s campaign, her lack of experience and her shaky performance in responding to simple questions in her few media interviews have alarmed many voters over the thought that she could be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

However, perhaps the biggest problem with McCain’s performance in the third debate was that he not only failed to knock Obama off-stride but that McCain ended up reinforcing some of the concerns that voters have about him.

McCain’s herky-jerky facial expressions reminded voters of his age, anger and health issues. His insistence that he was the real victim of negative campaigning simply didn’t fit with what voters have been seeing for weeks. His sarcasm and harsh attacks on Obama raised questions about whether McCain has the right temperament to be President.

Throughout the debate, McCain spoke about Obama with open disdain and sarcasm. He twice praised Obama’s “eloquence” with the sneering suggestion that Obama was guilty of slick double talk.

When Obama argued that restrictions on abortions should have exceptions for the life and health of the mother, McCain used air-quotes around the word, "health," saying: "That's the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, 'health.'"

In short, McCain came across to many voters as petulant, self-pitying and (with his focus on an obscure 1960s radical) living in the past. Also, by overdoing the references to “Joe the Plumber,” McCain sounded like someone who gets a laugh over a clever comment and then won’t let go.

Though McCain's pundit friends insisted after Wednesday night's debate that McCain had helped himself by putting Obama on the defensive, public opinion polls revealed that McCain actually completed a kind of negative debate trifecta as far as voters were concerned.

His first debate is now remembered for his refusal to look at Obama; the second was notable for McCain’s wandering around the stage and calling his opponent “that one”; and the third may be recalled for McCain putting his face through contortions of disdain for his rival and ending up looking a bit like silent movie actor Lon Chaney.

Meanwhile, Obama – though not doing much to distinguish himself in Wednesday's debate – maintained an unflappable cool, swatting away the personal attacks with concise responses that made McCain’s attacks sound like right-wing conspiracy theories.

Yet possibly worse for McCain, his final, shaky debate performance came at a time when a shaken nation was looking for a steady, vibrant leader who could address today’s challenges and formulate a coherent vision for the future.

In failing to do that – and instead presenting himself as a cranky old man consumed with anger – McCain may have done more to seal the deal for Obama than Obama did for himself.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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