Sen. McCain can still win this election, but he’ll probably need to change his strategy.

Ever since the campaign started, he has been getting hammered by Obama’s No. 1 issue, the economy. And alas, for the sake of party unity, he has meekly accepted the role of Bush Junior. This has given the electorate the impression that their choice is between yet another free-spending Republican or a brave Democrat who will crack down on the moneyed interests in New York and their country club Republican friends in Washington – which is a masterpiece of semantic distortion.

What McCain must do immediately is to announce clearly, dramatically and repeatedly that he will be the fiscal opposite of President Bush, the anti-Bush. He must go way beyond pointing his finger at Obama and making vague assertions that he is a far-left liberal. (To which Obama could rightly reply, “Sticks and stones may break my bones. …”) Instead, he must get specific and pound away at the dollar costs of all the programs Obama has proposed or even spoken of favorably. He must memorize the main costs and be able to recite them rapid-fire, again and again. And then give totals.

You’ve heard it said that the national debt is almost $11 trillion now. But that’s another semantic masterpiece. It’s actually close to $112 trillion.

I had been screaming for several years – to anyone who would listen – that our total future obligations, which include Medicare and Social Security, were actually $65 trillion … about $20 trillion more than the combined value of all U.S. land, houses and corporations.

But that was before Medicare Part D. In a frenzy of compassion, congressional Democrats passed the law before anyone in Washington had read it or added up the cost. That’s anyone, including the Republican president who signed it.

Now it has been read. In 2007, the official government estimate of the future costs of Medicare and Social Security came in at $101.7 trillion. Problem: There is no governmental mattress with $101.7 trillion stuffed into it. Never was, never will be – unless somehow Santa Claus teams up with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy. Add in the interest-bearing part of the national debt, and you have over $111 trillion.

McCain must memorize these figures and put himself forth as a cost-cutter extraordinaire who won’t allow such deadly debts to pile up. In fact, during the first debate, he made a stumbling attempt to do just that. Did you hear him? “As president of the United States … I’ve got a pen [he took it out and held it up] … this one’s kind of old. … I’m gonna veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk.”

That’s a bold statement, but it was probably a spontaneous afterthought because I haven’t heard him repeat it. Yet it could have been the hallmark statement of the entire debate series. Instead, he looked ruefully at his own pen and offhandedly grumbled quietly, “This one’s kind of old.”

Friend, this is where you come in. Send John McCain a new pen! Send it now, so he can pull it out and show it dramatically in the next debate!

That will become his defining, iconic moment. And it will make it almost impossible for him to do what George Bush did, forgetting all his promises to hold down spending. President “Rubber-stamp” Bush vetoed zero bills in his first four years, and a paltry 12 bills so far in his second term.

In high contrast, President Roosevelt, a big-time spender and the father of the New Deal, still had the gumption to execute 635 vetoes in his three-plus terms. Truman had 250, Eisenhower had 181, and the champion bill-killer of all time, Grover Cleveland, had 170 in his first term plus 414 in his second, yet left office with broad and great respect.

Sadly, though, McCain’s staff told him last Sunday to drop the economy as his main issue. A major mistake. Rescue the man from his handlers! Hunt through your dustiest drawers and find the loudest, most unique pen you’ve got. (But keep it under ten inches or so, because the Commission on Presidential Debates would surely deem anything longer than that to be a prop, which isn’t allowed.) Send it to John McCain 2008, P.O. Box 16118, Arlington, VA 22215 – or 241 Russell Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510 (phone: 202/224-2235) for FedEx or UPS). Do it today!

You may even get to see history being made as Sen. McCain whips out your pen with a flourish, launches his new identity and destroys the Democrats’ No. 1 talking point.

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