John McCain's beleaguered presidential campaign is struggling to weather yet another blow, after his running mate, Sarah Palin, was judged to have abused her power as Governor of Alaska when she and her husband sought to kick her former brother-in-law out of the state's police force.
A report, issued on Friday by an investigator for the Alaska legislature, does not urge censure or any other punishment for Mrs Palin after she sacked the state's top law enforcement officer. That was entirely within her rights as Governor, but, the report says, the action was partly motivated by the official's refusal to bow to pressure to dismiss Trooper Michael Wooten, whose marriage to Mrs Palin's sister ended in acrimonious divorce.
"Although [Commissioner of Public Safety] Walt Monegan's refusal to fire trooper Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination," says the 300-page report from Michael Branchflower, who was appointed by a bipartisan panel of the legislature to carry out the probe.
Yesterday Democrats and Republicans alike were trying to measure the affair's impact on the increasingly bitter fight for the White House, but it cannot help Mr McCain's cause. Just as his campaign is zeroing in on Barack Obama's character in an attempt to reverse its slide in the polls, Mr McCain must fend off well-nigh irrefutable evidence that his running mate, far from being a public-spirited scourge of corruption, is little more than a small town score-settler.
About the only consolation to the McCain camp is the timing of the report. In normal circumstances an official finding of abuse of power against a vice-presidential candidate would have dominated the headlines, probably putting the last nail into the coffin of a struggling campaign. That may yet be so. But yesterday "Troopergate" seemed just another political squabble, not helpful to Republicans to be sure, but one relegated to the bottom corner of the front pages by the drama on Wall Street – almost an irrelevance on a weekend when ordinary voters are worrying not about family feuding in a remote state but about their homes, pensions and jobs in the worst economic crisis in generations.
In the last few days Mrs Palin has led the personal attacks on Mr Obama, focusing on his links with the 1960s radical militant William Ayers, and alleged ties to the sleazy underworld of Chicago politics. Now Democrats will hit back, seizing on the Alaska report's finding that Mrs Palin "knowingly permitted a situation to continue where impermissible pressure was placed on several subordinates in order to advance a personal agenda ... to get Trooper Michael Wooten fired."
The McCain camp countered by claiming that the controversy was nothing but a partisan witch-hunt. The Alaska investigation had in fact vindicated the Governor, it argued, when it concluded she had acted "within her proper and legal authority" in dismissing Mr Monegan.
In the meantime, the campaign continues, albeit overshadowed by a financial crisis mere politicians seem powerless to influence. Yesterday, America's most famous "hockey mom" was dropping the ceremonial first puck at the opening hockey game of the Philadelphia Flyers. Hockey is a blue-collar sport, dear to the voters in the industrial north-east whom the McCain ticket must attract. But Sarah Palin's power to move them was ebbing even before the latest charges further dented her image as the straight-shooting, "I'll be doggoned" candidate sticking up for the average voter.
Except among the Republican faithful, the initial excitement generated by her shock selection has all but vanished. Now she is playing the traditional role of a vice-presidential candidate, firing up the party's social conservative base that warms to her far more than to Mr McCain himself, and leading the attacks on their opponents.
But her credibility is much eroded. The disastrous interview with NBC's Katie Couric – only partly mitigated by a gaffe-free performance in her vice-presidential debate with Joe Biden – has led several heavyweight conservative columnists to deem her simply unfit to become President, should Mr McCain fall under the proverbial bus. What once seemed an inspired choice now appears hasty and rash, adding weight to charges from the Obama campaign that Mr McCain is "erratic" and his judgement not to be trusted.
A month ago, a few days after Mrs Palin's delirious reception at the Republican convention, Newsweek magazine put McCain and Obama dead level. Yesterday another Newsweek poll gave the Democrat an 11-point lead. Other polls suggest a closer race, but the Democrat is nosing ahead in vital swing states, while Mr McCain is being forced to defend traditional Republican strongholds such as Indiana and North Carolina.
Sarah Palin is only part of the problem. In the two presidential debates, Mr McCain himself has come across as crabby and ill-tempered. He has yet to find a coherent message, and his remedies for the financial crisis change daily. Mr Obama has hardly dominated the economic stage, but he has come across as calm and measured – more "presidential" than his opponent, despite Mr McCain's vastly greater experience. The Republican's biggest handicap, however, is the crisis itself, which focuses attention on the traditional Democratic issue of the economy.
On Wednesday, Mr McCain will have his last big chance to regain the initiative, at the third candidates' debate. Meanwhile, his campaign has fallen back on time-honoured Republican methods of playing not to voters' hopes, but their fears. Thus the ever more pointed personal attacks on Mr Obama, mostly on his links with Mr Ayers and the convicted Chicago fundraiser and influence peddler Tony Rezko, but occasionally veering onto the more treacherous ground of his "differentness": that exotic background, his partly foreign origins – and, by implication, his race. Mrs Palin herself set the tone. "I am just so fearful that [Mr Obama] is not a man who sees America the way you and I see America," she told a rally in Florida, in the coded language of which Republicans are masters.
But she and her boss may be playing with fire. Race is the great unknown as this campaign approaches its climax. Perhaps the issue will rescue Mr McCain; perhaps Mr Obama's commanding lead will melt away in the secrecy of the ballot box on 4 November, as Americans decide they cannot elect a black man to be their President. Nobody can be sure. But for the McCain campaign, even to hint at the possibility is provoking unintended consequences.
In Minnesota on Friday, the Republican found himself booed by his own frustrated supporters. Mr Obama was an Arab, one woman insisted. "No ma'am, he's a decent family man, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues," Mr McCain replied. Right now, however, his dwindling hopes rest less on the issues than on fear of his opponent.
The campaign week
Sunday: Proceedings get dirty when Palin links Obama with terrorists and he raises McCain's links to a 1980s bank scandal.
Monday: Palin says Obama "does not see America as you and I see it". Will the Republicans play the race card?
Tuesday: The second presidential debate is the "worst such debate ever", declares 'Politico' magazine. Obama is generally adjudged winner on points.
Wednesday: The dark mood at the McCain HQ deepens. A poll puts him five points down in Ohio, a must-win state for any Republican.
Thursday: Obama calls his opponent erratic and risky. Are the Democrats playing the age card?
Friday: Market chaos dominates campaign. The McCain camp awaits "Troopergate" report.
Saturday: McCain tries to contain the report's damage. Obama thanks his rival for saying the Democrat was not a person to be scared of.