THAT BIG BAD POLL AND TONIGHT'S DEBATE.

CBS News/New York Times released their latest poll the night before debate day -- way to capture that news cycle, fellas -- and they've got Obama up a ridiculous 14 points, 53-39. The McCain camp says polling is volatile and that this result is an outlier but, even if they're right, when 14 is your outlier and 10 is your average, there's not enough spin in the world to get you out of the hole.

Here's an interesting cross-tab from the Times :

explainattack crosstabs.jpg

What interests is me is that Republicans put nearly the same explain/attack numbers up for both candidates. If Republicans think that Obama is running a campaign equally focused on outlining his own policies and attacking his opponent's, then it's going to be very hard for the GOP to continue to create a false equivalency between Obama's attacks and McCain's. Independents and Democrats overwhelmingly think Obama's campaign is focused on promoting his vision.

The poll's conclusion that McCain's attacks in the past weeks have backfired is interesting going into tonight because McCain is under pressure from his base, some of his advisers, and even the Obama campaign to bring his negative campaign into the open. If he does bring up Ayers or Wright, or accuse Obama of abandoning the troops, my sense is that he'll look bad and that Obama will have a good response. That response will probably be something along the lines of what Bill Burton outlined in a strategy memo sent to reporters: Dismiss the attacks and return to the economy. If McCain doesn't bring up his character attacks, either in response to the poll or in keeping with his let-the-campaign-do-the-dirty-work strategy, he looks a bit, hmm, timid?

On a related note, I have been wondering recently, as Obama climbs in the polls, if the conventional wisdom after the election might be that Rove-style smear politics are less effective these days. Obviously we'll never get rid of the grit of our political life and attack ads are here to stay, but maybe vicious attacks on patriotism and ethics will become less common. But Jason Zengerle catches a depressing new meme developing among conservatives: If McCain loses, it will be because he wasn't negative enough. Let me second his ugh. The reinvention of the GOP that follows this election will be interesting to watch -- quick quiz: see if you can name five rising conservatives out there stumping for McCain -- but hopefully it will be based more on explaining than attacking.

-- Tim Fernholz

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