Can John McCain possibly win this thing? Can he actually win in November?
The outlook is bleak: The polls are ugly, the Electoral College map is grim, the economy is getting worse, and McCain's choice of Sarah Palin may have energized the Republican base, but it has appalled and frightened many outside it.
Still, McCain's campaign has come back from the dead more than once. He survived his early support for immigration reform, he not only survived but has prospered from his support for the Iraq war surge, and he rebuilt a primary campaign that was in a state of near collapse to win the Republican nomination.
But can McCain do it again? Can he come back? And if so, how? What does he have to do between now and Election Day, and what does he have to do in Tuesday's second presidential debate in Nashville?
In a column in mid-September, I assembled a panel of Democratic experts and asked them if Barack Obama could manage to lose. (General conclusion: Yes, but he probably won't.)
Today, I have assembled a panel of Republican experts and asked them if McCain can manage to win.
Ken Duberstein was Ronald Reagan's chief of staff from 1988 to 1989 and was deputy undersecretary of labor for Gerald Ford. Duberstein is very well-connected within the Republican Party.
"I think it is uphill for McCain, but a victory is doable," Duberstein said. "He needs, obviously, to raise questions about Obama, but he also needs to reassure the American people and not simply the base that he has a plan to get us out of this economic mess and restore America's stature throughout the world.
"He needs to spell out not why he is a maverick but what he will do to lead: What are the specifics? What is the strategy? He needs three yards and a cloud of dust, and not a Hail Mary strategy. He needs to do what John McCain does best, which is explain to the people where John McCain wants to take the country.
"This is an election about big issues and big ideas, and this is not the time to play small ball. We are well past this stage. To many Americans, earmarks are a facial blemish. He has to talk about spending, not just earmarks, not just about a bridge to nowhere and about bears' DNA.
"How is McCain going to oversee our financial institutions? How is he going to get unemployment down and jobs created? How is he going to find success in Iraq and progress in Afghanistan? How is he going to deal with big issues like nuclear proliferation? On Tuesday night, he has to demonstrate a broad vision, a big vision, and not just stuff that happens inside the Beltway."
Greg Mueller was a senior adviser to Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes in their presidential campaigns and is an expert on conservative politics.
"McCain can definitely win the race," Mueller said. "McCain needs to change the discussion back to a referendum on Obama. He needs to define Obama's agenda as dangerous to America.
"It is dangerous to the economy. Obama is calling for higher taxes, historical spending and a huge increase in regulation that will hamper American business. Contrast that with McCain's message of lower taxes and freezing spending. On foreign policy and national security, Obama is a risky bet in a hostile world.
"McCain needs to keep banging those themes over and over again, so on Election Day voters think Obama is just not ready for this. The McCain campaign needs to feed the doubt people have about Barack Obama. There is a lot of doubt out there. I don't care what the polls say.
"The Supreme Court issue can be extremely powerful for McCain. Obama is basically for using the court for social engineering. This is key for Reagan Democrats in key swing states. Catholics respond very well to the Supreme Court issue. McCain and Palin have got to get on that.
"Every election goes in peaks and valleys in the polls. I am increasingly looking at the ground game. Hollywood stars are out there registering voters. The underlying problem of McCain's campaign is grass-roots action and activity. My fear there is that Obama is ahead in that."
Whit Ayres is a pollster and consultant who worked on Lamar Alexander's 1996 presidential campaign and in numerous Senate and gubernatorial races. He is an expert on Southern politics.
"Anybody who is talking about a race being over a month out has not been participating in very many campaigns," Ayres said. "Of course McCain can win it. Of course he can.
"He needs to broaden the discussion to dimensions that voters consistently see as relevant to their presidential choice. Voters vote on issues, particularly on the economy, but they also vote on character, leadership, values and ideology. And quite rightly so. A president for the next four years will be dealing with a whole host of issues beyond the economy, and how he deals with those issues is very relevant to the discussion.
"The Obama-Biden ticket is the most liberal ticket the Democrats have offered America since George McGovern in 1972. Barack Obama is far more liberal than most Americans. Moreover, a politician's associations are a window into his values. If John McCain liked to hang around with the Ku Klux Klan, and if his church had given a lifetime achievement award to racist David Duke, all of us would consider those legitimate areas of inquiry.
"Debates can make a difference. They are not traditionally game-changers, but they can be very important events in the reframing of choices. The debates are an opportunity for McCain to reframe the choice in broader terms than just the economy: the Supreme Court, leadership, national security, values, ideology, culture.
"On leadership, values, culture and ideology, John McCain is far closer to most Americans than Barack Obama.
"The $64,000 question in this election is whether the number of new registrants younger people and African-Americans is greater, the same or less than blue-collar whites and white seniors who are not going to vote for Barack Obama. And we are not going to know the answer to that until Nov. 4."