Doesn’t it seem like just a decade since the protagonists of our current national melodrama began taking the stage? John McCain announced his candidacy on David Letterman – only to discover that what Dave giveth, Dave can definitely take away. Hillary Clinton thought she’d prove herself futuristic by announcing from her sofa, via an Internet video message; little did she know how the Internet would eventually help overwhelm her once-inevitable rise. Only Barack Obama chose to do things the old-fashioned way, with a grand speech from a statehouse lawn; it was the first of many occasions when Obama, alone among his rivals, recognized that momentous times call for Big Gestures.

And so here we are, five days before the election and less than 24 hours after the last flurry of those gestures. Thirty-five thousand Floridians gathered at midnight for the Kiss-Up in Kissimmee, watching Bill Clinton — in a manic attempt to restore the bona fides he sullied during his wife’s misbegotten run – make his best full-throated argument for Obama. (I say “full-throated” because Clinton seems to have calculated that if he spoke unbelievably loudly – and in a mad dash of words – we wouldn’t notice that he could have been talking about any Democratic candidate, not just the one perched on a stool next to him.) Obama even managed the video-era feat of being two places at the same time, sitting down with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show even as he and Bubba were simultaneously bounding (if not bonding) on stage outside Orlando.

And then there was the small matter of the 30-minute infomercial with which the Obama campaign commandeered seven broadcast networks and cable channels last evening. In case you haven’t seen it, and have a half hour to kill, here it is:

Whatever else last night’s Obamapalooza accomplished, it achieved the same thing his announcement speech in January 2007 did: It made his opponent’s efforts appear small and petty by comparison. McCain spent the day, as he spends every day, on the attack, playing to the narrow-mindedness and bloodlust of his rally crowds rather than to the concerns and hopes of those couple million voters who may not have made up their minds, yet don’t view the world through a conservative ideological prism. Having turned his back on “honor” and “integrity” and all that crap that had never really worked for him anyway (see South Carolina, 2000), McCain and his Bush-leftover advisors now aim to replicate W.’s 50-plus-one strategy by getting ugly and staying ugly right through Tuesday.

They may have little choice in the matter. McCain and his followers have spent much of the autumn like that girl in The Silence of the Lambs, looking up from a deep pit of bad polls and failing messages. Their response has been to try desperately to convince half the electorate that Obama is not just a guy who wants to run the country in a different fashion, but that he’s indeed “Buffalo Bill,” an awful and deviant monster who would “skin” the country to remake himself. So Obama can’t just be a popular politician, he must be a mindless “celebrity”; he can’t simply have engaged in mainstream public-service projects that also involved former radicals or experts on Palestine, he must be “palling around with terrorists”; he can’t simply favor a traditional Democratic restructuring of income-tax burdens, he must be a “Socialist.”

I’ll have more to say about the consequences of such campaigning next week; for now, it’s sufficient to suggest that for a decided majority of the electorate, these Republican attacks haven’t worked. Democrats have spent the last month dreading the moment when they would begin to work, anticipating the shift in the polls that would prove that, confound it, the Republicans had done it again – tricked the voters into subverting their own best interests by demonizing a perfectly worthy opponent. It still might happen, of course, though the prospect of a McCain comeback at this point seems rather far-fetched. But, should it not happen, the obvious question will be … why? What was different this time?

Obama portrayed as the antichristWell, for one thing, Obama gave McCain (and Hillary) precious little to work with in real time. Sure, they could dredge up old photos of Bill Ayers or old video of Jeremiah Wright – or they could spin some seven-year-old, obtuse radio ramblings about the Supreme Court’s ineffectiveness as a change agent during the Civil Rights Movement into some sort of Socialist rant, as they attempted to do earlier this week. But all of McCain/Palin’s fulminating about terrorists and socialists and celebrity couldn’t contend with the cool, calm, smart, rational, and altogether American demeanor Obama has shown the nation on a daily basis. The conjured images simply didn’t jibe with the real one.

Another reason the Republican arguments fell flat this autumn may be found in the voters’ perception of the messengers. After their abject domestic-policy failures of the past four years, from Terry Schiavo to Social Security to energy policy to immigration to monstrous deficits to Katrina, Republicans have no standing from which to criticize alternative ideas. With all the corruption that has run rampant through the party since it took power – Ted Stevens’ travails being a convenient contemporaneous reminder – Republicans have no basis from which to argue their capacity for reform. And considering the pure, unmitigated evil that continues to permeate the Bush administration – how long will it take the United States to recover its self-esteem, much less its international standing, after the horrors of unprovoked invasion, torture and domestic spying? – Republicans’ attempts to paint their opponents as “anti-American” or even vaguely suspicious are utterly laughable. Maybe, just maybe, the electorate has finally seen the Republican Party for what it truly is.

But … but … McCain isn’t a Republican, he’s a maverick! And look at Sarah Palin! (Don’t listen to her, for crying out loud – just keep looking at her!) She’s all mavericky, too! Well, let’s give the Republicans credit for having the good sense to nominate the one guy in the entire party who could keep the margin in this election within 15 points. But let’s also give Obama credit for knocking down the “maverick” argument with his astute skewering of McCain’s record. Of course, the old man’s credentials were pretty weak tea to begin with. He undercut his claims of “reaching across the aisle” by engaging in a four-year reach-around with Bush and the Christian right to get here. His holier-than-thou stance on campaign finance collapsed under the weight of his own FEC maneuverings (and was buried by an avalanche of small donations to the Obama campaign). And his rants against earmarks and wasteful spending were revealed as – what was the phrase I used earlier? – a small and petty harangue in the face of a major financial collapse.

Therein lies the final – really, the only necessary – nail in McCain’s electoral coffin. The current crisis in the credit markets, and the foundering economy as a whole, doomed McCain and the Republican Party more than did Obama’ fancy speeches, his steady demeanor, or even his mountain of money. (By the way, I finally caught the sobering, if a bit ponderous, documentary I.O.U.S.A. this week; considering that it was filmed a whole year ago, it remarkably remains a useful guide to the significance of the past month’s events. The accompanying book, published this month, features the filmmakers’ complete interviews with such knowledgeable figures as Robert Rubin, Ron Paul, Paul Volcker, Alan Greenspan, Warren Buffett and the film’s centerpiece, former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker.)

If you were waiting for an October Surprise, perhaps it arrived this morning – except that this double-whammy of economic news was no surprise at all. The Treasury announced that, in the last quarter, the economy had contracted at its sharpest rate since Bush’s first recession … and Exxon-Mobil simultaneously announced that, during that very same quarter, it had raked in its highest profits in history. Drill, baby, drill!

In this environment – one created largely by Republican policies and mismanagement – McCain and his GOP compatriots are lucky to be clinging as tightly as they are to the precipice, though the fall still seems inevitable. I believe that Obama would have squeaked by (at least) in this election even without the economic tsunami that arrived in mid-September; he has proven the superior candidate, with better ideas, a better temperament for the presidency, and a more enthusiastic base of support. Now, with all the trends continuing to move in Obama’s direction, the Democrats sprint into the final weekend trying to adapt the history-making uplift of their primary season to the current troubled environment – and simultaneously to deflect the decrepit bitterness and negativity of the McCain candidacy’s last throes.

So enjoy the denouement, and we’ll meet back here next week to discuss the outcome.