WASHINGTON - Frustrations inside John McCain's camp boiled over on the eve of tonight's presidential debate as the candidate's brother unleashed an e-mail blasting the campaign's "counter-productive" strategy.
"Let John McCain be John McCain," wrote Joe McCain in a missive sent out shortly before midnight Monday. "Make ads that show John not as crank and curmudgeon but as a great leader for his time."
McCain's younger brother was sharply critical of unnamed top campaign officials who "so tightly 'control the message' " that they are preventing reporters from speaking with those, like himself, who know the candidate best. His complaint echoed those of other McCain intimates who have chafed for months at orders not to speak with the news media without advance permission from the campaign.
The younger McCain called this news management strategy "counter-intuitive, counter-experiential, and counter-productive" because it conflicts with his brother's reputation for openness. The clampdown "has gradually bled away all the good will that this great man had from the press," he wrote.
He described himself as a sailor warning that the campaign is sailing into shoals "while the rest of the officers and warrants are poring over plans and maps and high-minded thoughts."
Joe McCain did not return a phone message and an e-mail asking him to discuss his complaint. The McCain campaign declined to comment.
His angry dispatch to McCain campaign and Republican Party officials appears to reflect growing restiveness among supporters over the direction of the presidential contest.
On Monday, an influential conservative commentator, William Kristol, wrote in The New York Times that McCain should "fire his campaign" and revert to his former image as "a cheerful, open and accessible candidate."
With the election less than three weeks away, newly released national polling shows Barack Obama holding a significant lead, as he has since the economy became an overwhelming voter concern last month. The Democrat is running 9 percentage points ahead of McCain among likely voters, 50 percent to 41 percent, according to a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg opinion survey. A New York Times/CBS News poll has Obama's advantage at 53 percent to 39 percent.
Strategists in both parties say McCain needs a strong showing in the final debate to win over undecided voters and plant fresh doubts among soft Obama supporters.
Up to now, McCain has not gained an advantage from debate performances against Obama.
"The debates are making a difference," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, "but they are making the difference for Barack Obama, not necessarily for John McCain."
Obama has used the debates "to achieve that threshold of acceptance among voters that he was lacking before," Newhouse added. "It hasn't been that he's used them to advance an issue position or an attack against McCain, . . . it's been to convince voters that he's up to the job."
Little in the first two McCain-Obama encounters suggests the potential for a campaign-changing event this evening.
The candidates will be seated at a table with veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, who will moderate a discussion about the economy and domestic issues. Their 9 p.m. encounter takes place on the campus of Hofstra University in New York.
A growing number of analysts, mainly Democrats, have begun saying that the election has already been decided, since candidates lagging as far behind as McCain at this point in the contest seldom win.
But most say it still isn't too late for Obama's lead to disappear, in part because of unpredictable events in what has been a highly volatile election year and in part because of uncertainty over racial attitudes.
In any event, though, McCain's "window of opportunity is certainly narrowing," Newhouse said.
Dan Schnur, a former McCain aide, said the Republican needs to build on economic proposals he's put forward over the last few days.
"The more time he spends talking about economic solutions and why he is the more capable candidate to make that happen, the better chance he has of getting voters to take one last look at their decision," said Schnur, who directs the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
McCain also needs to raise more doubts in voters' minds about Obama, said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
McCain campaign aides have said the Republican is likely to raise questions about Obama's associations with an early supporter, Bill Ayers, a former 1960s radical, and convicted Chicago businessman Tony Rezko, who helped Obama purchase land adjacent to his home.
Tonight "is one of McCain's last shots," said Reed.
Democrats say they expect Obama to parry any debate assault from McCain.
Sen. Hillary Clinton, who warned during the primaries that Obama wouldn't be able to withstand Republican attacks, told an NBC interviewer this week that "the circumstances have changed." The country is in an economic crisis and "people don't have the luxury of paying attention" to attacks.
In an assessment that reflects the judgment of politicians in both parties, she said Obama won voter respect by appearing calmer and more assured than McCain as economic fears have grown.
Earlier Obama-McCain debates received fairly low marks from strategists, who faulted both men for not delivering more compelling messages keyed to the nation's economic distress. Television ratings were weaker than anticipated, and the vice-presidential debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden attracted a larger audience.
McCain, talking tough, told workers at his campaign headquarters the other day that he would "whip [Obama's] you-know-what in the debate." That remark caused at least one Republican strategist to wince, because it might lead some to expect more than the candidate could deliver.
"If that was lowering expectations," he said, "that was a first for me."