The Note: Tone Check

These next three weeks -- and, perhaps, the next three decades or so of legacies -- comes down to a simple question: What does Johnny want?

Yes, he wants to be president. But underneath that question, things get trickier.

Does he want to run against Barack Obama or Barack Hussein Obama? (Is that choice still his?)

Will the campaign tone be set by John McCain himself, or McCain's party, some of McCain's strongest supporters, or McCain's running mate? (Which of those dogs pack the meanest bite?) Does he put forward a new, tax-cutting economic proposal to train his focus on the only dominant issue that's out there? (Answer Monday morning: No -- he'd still rather turn the page.)

Is McCain willing to lose a reputation to win a campaign? (And how many of his allies -- up to and including Sarah Palin -- know they have reputations that extend far beyond 2008?)

The Republican nominee trots out another new closing message Monday -- McCain the fighting underdog. "We've got them just where we want them," he plans to say Monday.

But he needs to break through is own clutter: Mixed messaging from his allies; a missing message on the campaign's big issue; a base that's threatening to bolt; a schedule that leaves him playing defense (in Virginia Monday); a running mate who's still answering (or not) key questions; a staff that's squabbling over the next move; a country that seems to be turning on him.

John McCain is, at this moment, losing: With a 90 percent wrong-track number, and President Bush beating Richard Nixon's low, it's Obama 53, McCain 43 in the new ABC News/Washington Post poll.

"Though every race is different, no presidential candidate has come back from an October deficit this large in pre-election polls dating to 1936," ABC polling director Gary Langer reports. The Palin pop is long gone: "Just 29 percent of his own supporters are 'very enthusiastic' about [McCain's] campaign, the fewest since August and down a sharp 17 points from his post-convention peak."

Three weeks out, "the two presidential nominees appear to be on opposite trajectories, with Sen. Barack Obama gaining momentum and Sen. John McCain stalled or losing ground on a range of issues and personal traits," Anne Kornblut and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post. "Recent strategic shifts may have hurt the Republican nominee." And: "Among the reasons McCain's path to victory seems steeper is that the percentage of 'movable' voters continues to shrink."

Does he still have a chance? "The magnitude of Mr. McCain's task may leave him depending on a misstep by Mr. Obama or a national security crisis rather than on what he can achieve through speeches, advertising or a winning performance in the final debate on Wednesday," John Harwood writes in The New York Times.

Says former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd: "At this point . . . the campaign is totally out of John McCain's hands."

ABC's George Stephanopoulos looks at polls showing the debates as a boost to Obama's prospects, leaving Wednesday's debate at Hofstra University as McCain's last shot for a big win.

"It's really John McCain's last chance, though I wonder how much he can do to help himself at this point," Stephanopoulos reported on "Good Morning America" Monday. "He'll be tempted to go hard on the attack, but that could end up hurting him more than helping him in this environment."

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