Jovial John McCain Plays Front-Runner

Apparently, John McCain got the enmity out of his system on Saturday night, because when the Republicans—sans Ron Paul—convened for their second debate in two nights on Sunday, the Arizona Senator was relentlessly diplomatic toward his main antagonist, Mitt Romney.

Time and again on Sunday, Romney—and the debate’s moderator, Chris Wallace—sought to bait McCain into the kind of heated confrontation with Romney in which he repeatedly engaged the night before. But McCain, who has opened a small but clear lead in New Hampshire polls, met each attempt with smiles and shrugs, downplaying their personal differences and seeking to play the role of confident and self-assured front-runner.

At one point, Wallace actually played one of the harshest attack ads that Romney has run against McCain, focusing on McCain’s immigration stance. Asked what he thought of the ad, McCain offered a dismissive wave of his hand.

“Look, these are attack ads. I don’t think they work,” he said, adding that he wished Wallace had also given air time to one of his own ads.

Wallace tried again, asking if McCain thought Romney’s poor showing in Iowa represented a backlash against the negative campaign he ran.

McCain tried to ignore the question, instead joking that he planned to seek a recount in Iowa to determine whether he came in third or fourth place. Pressed by Wallace for a direct answer, McCain finally offered that, “Everyone runs their own campaign. People make their judgments.”

This was not the same John McCain who just 24 hours earlier had gleefully seized on every opportunity available to shred Romney as a shifty politician and dishonorable competitor.

In Saturday night’s debate, McCain invoked a quote from Joe Lieberman to suggest that Romney was lying and tore into his opponent with a string of sarcastic and sharp-edged one-liners. When, for instance, Romney told another candidate that he’d been misquoted, McCain cut in to tell Romney that “When you change your positions from time to time, you will get misquoted.”

But on Sunday, McCain the aggressor was nowhere to be found, even as Romney offered his usual assaults on McCain’s positions on tax cuts and immigration and his insinuations that McCain is too old for the job.

The shift in style actually began on Sunday morning, when McCain appeared on “Meet the Press” and insisted to Tim Russert that he is personally fond of Romney and hasn’t been too bothered by Romney’s attacks.

The new approach that reflects the McCain campaign’s fear that their candidate risked being seen as too mean and too negative if he continued sniping with Romney—that his dry sarcasm might be read as mean-spiritedness, the same way Bob Dole’s was. Given the enormous personal affection many New Hampshire voters already feel for McCain, the gambit probably makes sense: better to remind people of why they like McCain than to give them a reason not to.

It’s the surest sign that McCain’s recovery from his near-death experience over the summer is complete: He’s playing it safe, because now he actually has something to lose.

Jovial John McCain Plays Front-Runner