I can only imagine what sort of wire-brush scrubbing and firehose wash John McCain must have taken before appearing on the Nashville stage of Tuesday night’s second presidential debate. Something like that horrific radiation-detox scene in Silkwood.

How else would the Gentleman from Arizona have sufficiently cleaned up for the network cameras after having spent the previous week or so uninhibitedly mucking around in the pig slop of his own desperate and moribund campaign? I wouldn’t be surprised if he had a full-body pumice rubdown followed by marination in a vat of warm eucalyptus oil before creaking onto the debate stage.

I didn’t look closely enough, but did anyone in the audience behind Tom Brokaw wrinkle their nostrils as they sensed the redolence of hog droppings?

“Freak-show season” is how one pundit has termed the garish spectacle of the End Days of the McCain campaign: a clarion announcement to the press that we were now “turning the page” on an economy that nears evaporation; the unleashing of supposed pit bull Sarah Palin, who, more like a weak-bladdered Chihuahua, feebly tried to drag the political corpse of an unknown ’60s radical into Obama’s tent; Cindy McCain, sounding like she’s back to scarfing Percoset while she accuses Obama of waging “the dirtiest campaign in history”; and John McCain himself, yukking it up amid Republican rally crowds whose blood lust rises at the mention of the traitorous scandal of the Democratic candidate palling around with terrorists.

Indeed, these latest GOP roadside pep rallies have taken on the tone of the chilling ultraright street gatherings I attended 20 years ago in El Salvador, with the mob openly threatening reporters, assaulting photographers and — carotid arteries pulsating — yelling out racial epithets.

Yet, it was the kinder, gentler McCain who showed up in Nashville. Someone on his staff must have convinced him that on a day the Dow dropped 500 points it just might be a good idea to talk to the American people about the economy instead of rattling around the bogeyman of Bill Ayers.

But to no avail. After days of media hype over McCain’s supposed mastery of the town-hall format, he turned in a lackluster performance in a lackluster, hollowed-out “debate,” moderated by the longtime lackluster Brokaw. Poor John McCain, when asked whether health care was a right or a privilege, answered by revealing his steel-cold Reaganite soul, saying it was neither. It was, we learned, “a responsibility.” Just whose responsibility was never mentioned by McCain.

Nothing changed in the race Tuesday night. At least, nothing good for McCain. Millions of viewers were starkly reminded of the generational divide that undergirds this election. A physically awkward McCain, sporting his now trademark sort of forced smile, was dwarfed onstage by a fluid, graceful and absolutely poised Barack Obama, nearly 30 years his junior. A SurveyUSA postdebate poll scored the match as a crushing 54-29 percent win for Obama. Not a single windy CNN pundit, including GOP über-partisans like Bill Bennett or Alex Castellanos were willing to give the thumbs-up for their own guy. Right-wing blogs went bonkers over a half-mumbled, hundred-billion-dollar new McCain proposal that the U.S. government buy up individual, troubled mortgages.

There are much more important numbers to be reviewed. Obama continued to widen his national polling lead, averaging about a 7 point spread. An entire set of battleground and formerly Republican-red states, from Virginia to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Florida to Colorado, Nevada and even North Carolina ominously tumbled in Obama’s direction. Some pollsters chalk up 264 electoral votes already in the bag for the Democrat — only six short of the finish line with a full month to go.

Freak show? Silly season? The ugly time? Yes and no. More than anything, we continue to watch the death rattle of an entire political era. That thunderous noise you hear is the thrashing, flailing tail of a dying dinosaur. It can still wreak havoc as it blindly lashes back and forth. But soon it will be still. There’s one more debate. A concession speech November 4. And when McCain is reduced to walk-on cameos in Viagra commercials and Palin has her own talk show on Fox, you will know it’s finally all over.

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