VIRGINIA BEACH, VA. — John McCain unveiled a feisty new campaign speech Monday, but the talk of change and promise of a fist-shaking fight to November failed to allay Republican concerns that the presidential race may be slipping beyond his grasp.
With 21 days to the election, there was widespread agreement that Wednesday night's third and final presidential debate would be a crucial opportunity -- and perhaps the last one -- for the Arizona senator to change the course of a race that appears to be moving strongly in Democrat Barack Obama's direction.
But the consensus ended there. For just about every Republican urging McCain to focus relentlessly on the economy, there was another who said McCain should continue questioning Obama's character by citing his association with William Ayers, a Vietnam-era radical. Some said the GOP nominee needed to do both, and also bring up the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Obama's controversial former pastor; others called that a mistake and said that a mix of messages was part of McCain's problem.
"This has been a very tactically oriented campaign that responds to the previous night's evening news," said David Winston, a Republican pollster who advises the GOP leadership in the House and Senate. "As a result, they've gone tactical decision to tactical decision without any strategy to tie that together."
Republican Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, head of the party's senatorial campaign committee, said that McCain had to "start getting a very clear, simple message on the economy. Their team has not put that together so far."
Neither Ensign nor Winston ruled out a McCain victory. But their unusually open criticism reflected a nervousness that is growing within party ranks as McCain seemingly shifts strategies on almost a daily basis.
He spent several days last week criticizing Obama's relationship with Ayers (though he never brought up the matter in last Tuesday night's debate). McCain then abruptly halted the criticism and even defended his Democratic rival when some of his own supporters responded with slurs.
Campaigning Monday in Virginia and North Carolina, states Republicans once took for granted, McCain made no mention of Ayers at his rallies and largely avoided the character questions he had raised previously. Instead, he returned to the promise of change -- a major theme of last month's successful GOP convention -- and distanced himself not so subtly from the Bush administration.
"We cannot spend the next four years as we have spent much of the last eight," McCain told a boisterous crowd of about 12,000 supporters in Virginia Beach. "The hour is late. Our troubles are getting worse. Our enemies watch. We have to act immediately. We have to change direction now."
McCain acknowledged his difficult position. Surveys show Obama holding a solid lead in national polls and ahead in enough states to easily capture the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, assuming nothing changes before Nov. 4. McCain, who has staged repeated comebacks in the presidential race, embraced the familiar role of underdog, saying he came from a long line of scrappers.
"Sen. Obama is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and Sen. [Harry] Reid to raise taxes, increase spending, take away your right to vote by secret ballot in labor elections and concede defeat in Iraq," McCain said, offering his slant on the Illinois senator's positions. "But you know what they forgot? They forgot to let you decide. My friends, we've got them just where we want them."
Many Republicans, however, seem less sanguine. "I don't want to be the first Republican out there to say it's a disaster, but it's a . . . disaster," said a GOP strategist in a key state both sides are targeting. He did not want to be identified criticizing the party's nominee. "I don't see the issue that's going to turn this race around, unless there's a scandal, a terrorist act -- almost an act of God."
Others were more optimistic. "Frankly, he's running a better campaign in this environment under difficult circumstances than we have any right to expect," said Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, who heads the GOP's congressional campaign committee. Cole suggested that there was plenty of time for McCain to turn the race around: "I think it's a mistake for our members to disconnect from McCain."
But even as they held out hope for a reversal of fortunes, Republicans differed over how best to make it happen, reflecting a dissonance within party ranks.
Todd Harris, a spokesman for McCain's 2000 presidential run, said there was nothing wrong with McCain talking about Ayers -- who took part in a domestic bombing campaign as co-founder of the Weather Underground -- and Wright, so long as he kept his main focus on the economy. "I think that the Ayers stuff is important in that it's illustrative of who Obama is," said Harris, adding that Wright's incendiary comments about race and other matters make him a legitimate topic.