Did McCain's lead in the polls terrify him? Is that why, when he had the chance to lock in his advantage, he branded himself instead as a desperate gambler and let Obama play the cool, collected leader?
A book about the 1988 election described how Michael Dukakis refused to respond to attacks, after taking a vacation that let him ponder his 17-point lead over George H.W. Bush. "Saying over and over that you were going to be president gave you a kind of runner's high; but when the cheering stopped, a certain hollow feeling set in, a sudden vertigo of the soul."
In 1992 Paul Tsongas also let his chances slip away. Revelations about Bill Clinton's womanizing and draft-dodging had propelled Tsongas to a 20-point lead in polls just before the New Hampshire primary. But Tsongas cut back his appearances as Clinton doubled his and cut the margin in half. Projected the winner, Tsongas let Clinton take the stage first to declare himself "the comeback kid" and lost his momentum.
Likewise, Al Gore could give rip-roaring speeches when nothing is at stake for him personally. But his inner demons took hold in 2000, when his three ridiculous debate performances against George W. Bush cost him the presidency.
McAwesome a choke dog?