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“A couple of months ago, McCain was ahead, now Obama is,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “The Obama campaign knows how to use message agenda tactically.”

The two campaigns have mirror image strategies. Mr. Obama’s is to make Mr. McCain look as if he’s offering a four-year extension of the Bush “out of touch” presidency - a losing proposition in every poll in the last two years. Mr. McCain’s is to make Mr. Obama look as if he’s about to finally saddle America with four years of a George McGovern presidency that never was.

The difference now is in the alacrity of attack when an opening appears.

A huge hole appeared in the Obama armor on the same day Mr. Gramm made his gaffe. Michelle Obama, the candidate’s wife, said in Pontiac, Mich., that the Bush administration’s $600 stimulus was so meager it could only buy a pair of earrings.

Not only did the Republican National Committee and the McCain campaign fail to use the “earrings” gaffe to trump the “whiners” comment, but Republican media guru Mike Murphy, who pundits insisted last week would soon be appointed as the McCain campaign’s message maven, managed not to mention the earrings gaffe in a “Meet the Press” appearance Sunday.

“Until John McCain develops his own message on a series of issues that contrast with Obama and that the majority of Americans agree with, McCain will continue falling into this Bush III trap,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “What McCain needs is a winning contrast message that makes it a one-on-one race with Obama, and not a Bush-McCain vs. Obama contest.”