Character and leadership were supposed to be central foundations of John McCain’s presidential campaign: the doughty war hero who survived five and a half years in a Vietnam prison camp to become one of the US’s most widely respected political figures.
But, through a combination of bad luck and poor judgment, Mr McCain has struggled to fully benefit from his chief qualities during a bruising campaign that has undermined his bipartisan appeal and left many voters wondering whether his warrior instincts are an asset or liability.
Mr McCain’s brand may yet prove resilient enough to pull off a shock victory. But, if he does, it will have been mostly in spite of the campaign he ran rather than because of it. His misfortune was to win the Republican nomination in a year when his strongest issue – national security – was eclipsed by his weakest – the economy. His error was to stick with his impulsive, risk-taking leadership style at a time when the US was looking for a steady hand at a time of economic crisis.
Two moments have come to define the McCain campaign: his choice of Sarah Palin as running mate and his theatrical decision to suspend his campaign to enter negotiations over the $700bn financial sector bail-out.
Both were bold gambles designed to shake up a race he was on course to lose – in keeping with his daring character as a former navy pilot who crashed or was shot down three times during his flying career.
His choice of Ms Palin initially paid off by energising the conservative base but, if the polls prove correct, ended up alienating many independent voters as doubts about her qualifications grew. His intervention in the financial crisis was less successful still, making him look weak and opportunistic as his involvement appeared to complicate negotiations rather than expedite a deal.
Making matters worse was the contrast between Mr McCain’s unpredictability and his opponent’s steely calm. This gave Mr Obama an opportunity that would once have seemed improbable: to portray himself as the most reliable and reassuring choice of leader.
Mr McCain’s uneven campaign strategy and impulsive decision making allowed the Democrats to openly describe him as “erratic” without it being viewed as a smear.
The negative tone of the campaign has also taken its toll on Mr McCain’s bipartisan appeal, with critics accusing him of rolling over to the Republican attack machine he once repudiated. He stuck by his word, however, not to exploit the racially divisive furore over Jeremiah Wright, Mr Obama’s former pastor, and there have been occasional glimpses of the funny, likeable character that originally made him so popular – most recently in his self-depreciating performance on Saturday Night Live, the comedy sketch show, last week.
If he loses on Tuesday, historians might conclude that the election was unwinnable for Mr McCain given the hostile political environment. But Mark Salter, his closest aide, says the fact the race is even competitive proves the durability of the “McCain brand”. “It’s election eve and we’re still in the hunt,” he said on Monday.