Writing a postmortem for John McCain’s presidential candidacy would be premature. But if and when that moment comes next week, toxic staff infection will be listed as a primary cause of death.

Rarely has any national campaign suffered from the combination of oafish incompetence and transparent malice displayed by the little coterie of operatives who surround the Republican nominee. They continue to damage his reputation and theirs, even as they attempt to escape blame for the campaign’s declining prospects.

Now these geniuses seem to think they can offload the responsibility for their mistakes onto Sarah Palin, which would be like Dr. Frankenstein trying to blame everything on the poor monster. Of course, Frankenstein possessed too much character and decency to evade responsibility for the chaos he created. But the McCain inner circle seems unburdened by those qualities.

Recent polls indicate that Gov. Palin has turned into an albatross for the Republicans — both because of her erratic performance and the obvious questions that her nomination raised about Sen. McCain’s judgment. She has done nothing to expand the ticket’s appeal beyond the most ardent partisan base. Female Democrats, who were supposed to be attracted to a woman as vice president, dislike her intensely. Her behavior on the stump, where she regurgitates whatever cheesy material the campaign feeds her, has repelled independent voters, too.

In short, the brilliant Palin maneuver of late August hasn’t worked out so well for campaign manager Rick Davis and chief strategist Steve Schmidt come late October. The response in the latest round of leaked whispers is to trash her.

Tensions between the McCain and Palin camps broke out over the weekend in angry sniping, as the Alaska governor tried to fend off the attacks she anticipated from her erstwhile admirers. After her advisers complained to reporters that the campaign had mishandled her ever since the Republican convention, the McCain advisers struck back in harsh personal terms.

Nameless McCain sources complained to Politico.com and CNN that she is selfishly “playing for her own future” as a party leader and potential presidential candidate. Depicting her as the Eve Harrington of the GOP, the sources said she “does not have relationships of trust with any of us, her family, or anyone else” and “sees herself as the beginning and end of all wisdom.” Repeatedly, they berated her as a “diva.”

Presumably Gov. Palin is capable of defending herself against these insults, but there is something awfully obnoxious about the way she is being treated by her former patrons — and their assumption that somehow we will believe it is all her fault.

Very inconveniently for the McCain crew, an extraordinary article appeared in The New York Times Magazine on Oct. 26 that explained exactly how the Palin choice came to be made and by whom. It was Schmidt and Davis, in collaboration with speechwriter Mark Salter, who picked her over a host of more qualified candidates, following a superficial investigation of her background, knowledge, official conduct and temperament. The three insiders then presented her to a smitten, impetuous Sen. McCain.

When Gov. Palin’s convention debut drew rave reviews and auspicious polls, the McCain advisers naturally took credit. “Game on!” bellowed Schmidt, as the political tide temporarily seemed to turn.

Once a protégé of Karl Rove, Schmidt brushed off any questions about Gov. Palin’s resume with practiced belligerence. “Her selection came after a six-month-long, rigorous vetting process where her extraordinary credentials and exceptionalism became clear,” he fibbed. And as far as he was concerned, every Palin skeptic was simply a sexist pig, “This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys’ network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country.”

Well, what could be more sexist than whispering “diva” to describe her now? It is a synonym for a term that rhymes with witch, as Barbara Bush might put it, and no stereotype is more poisonous to women in politics. Oink, oink.

Setting up the running mate as scapegoat during the final week is bad form as well as bad faith. Every campaign is a test of character — and, win or lose, the handlers of Mr. McCain have failed.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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