Apparently unwilling to let the Washington Redskins dominate today’s news of awkward backtracking all by themselves, John McCain has taken a look at the latest polls and realized a strategy of nonstop lying might not have been such a stroke of genius after all.

Josh Marshall today links to a video showing McCain saying this has been "a tough campaign" and adding, "I regret, and sometimes I’m offended, by some of the negative aspects of this campaign."  Not so offended, of course, that he plans to change his ways — he hastens to add that the race "is probably going to get a lot tougher."  He just wants to pretend that it’s not his fault.

As self-absolvements go, this is probably one of the least effective since Lady Macbeth was muttering "Out, damned spot, out!" But McCain doesn’t have much choice.  By letting Karl Rove B-teamer Steve Schmidt take effective control of his campaign a few months ago, McCain signed away his power to steer his own message, and it’s too late to get it back.

The irony is that for all the adulatory articles written about Schmidt after his intra-campaign coup (no doubt aided by the endless lobbying of reporters by Schmidt and his old boss, Rove), his supposedly brutal assault on Barack Obama’s character did very little damage.  The "celebrity" nonsense never rose to the level of a disqualifying caricature the way previous barrages did to John Kerry, Al Gore, and Michael Dukakis.

What did help McCain in the polls, at least temporarily, was the nomination of Sarah Palin as vice president, which reinforced a positive image of McCain as an outsider willing to shake up the established Washington, D.C. order.  But the Palin nomination was a spur-of-the-moment fluke. 

Had the McCain team really tried to build that outsider narrative and run on their own credentials and policies, they might still be leading the race.  Instead, though, Schmidt got carried away with his own aggressiveness, leading to the brazen phoniness of the "lipstick" hissy fit and the ghastly sex-education ad that tried to depict Obama as a pervert. Especially in combination, these tactics seem to have shocked enough consciences in both the MSM and the broader public that it’s McCain who is now saddled with the lasting negative image.

Maybe if Schmidt had been less concerned with cultivating worshipful profiles of himself — and less susceptible to believing them — he wouldn’t have misjudged the public mood so badly.  It’s not the kind of rookie mistake you can imagine Karl Rove making.