For a fleeting moment, the old John McCain was back on form, wise-cracking, poking fun and revealing himself to be one of the great pre-emptive joke tellers of American politics. Looking every inch the naval war hero, the maverick senator-turned-presidential candidate seduced a well-heeled audience at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel and even emerged unscathed from an encounter with the late-night chat show host David Letterman, whose wrath he had earned for cancelling an earlier appearance.
All too briefly, the morbid death-watch of Senator McCain's scatter-gun campaign was put on hold as true believers had their hopes renewed that he could turn things around. Democrats, already giddy with excitement about Barack Obama's stunning position in the opinion polls, got a sickening feeling that there was still a chance old McCain might return to form and snatch a third successive Republican victory.
But all that was a sideshow to a tumultuous week, a moment of traditional respite in the dog-eat-dog final weeks of the race for the White House. An interlude when Senators McCain and Obama took take time away from the fray to have dinner at a posh hotel and swap some barbed jokes, mostly about themselves. Mr McCain's sparkling performance at the Alfred E Smith dinner, held to honour the first US Catholic to run for the presidency, banished the crotchety and impatient image which had dominated voters' television screens in recent weeks.
For openers, Mr McCain declared that he had sacked his senior team and that "all of their positions will now be held by a man named Joe the Plumber". He went on to poke fun at a tricky moment during one of the presidential debates when he referred to Mr Obama as "that one". "He doesn't mind at all," Mr McCain said. "In fact, he even has a pet name for me: George Bush."
The latest and liveliest of the three presidential debates on Wednesday saw Senator McCain jump on the story of "Joe the Plumber" – the Ohio handyman called Joe Wurzelbacher who confronted Mr Obama on the streets of Toledo last Sunday and questioned the Democrat's plan to raise taxes for anyone earning more than $250,000 a year. Mr McCain said Mr Wurzelbacher symbolised everything that was wrong with Mr Obama's proposals to "spread the wealth around". But to his huge embarrassment, it later emerged that Mr Wurzelbacher is a tax defaulter who does not have a plumbing licence and earns just $40,000 a year, which entitles him to a tax cut under Senator Obama's plans.
The debate was Mr McCain's last big chance to shatter what Republicans have always said is Mr Obama's glass jaw of inexperience. Instead, the Republican was judged to have been irascible and tetchy, while the smooth-as-silk Democrat counter-punched effectively every time he was attacked.
In this made-for-television election race, physical appearances matter. Mr McCain's awkwardness contrasted sharply with his opponent's graciousness, even when faced with a blistering attack over his acquaintance with William Ayers, the former leader of the radical US left-wing organisation the Weather Underground, which launched a domestic bombing campaign in the 1960s. The battering Mr McCain gave Mr Obama was just what staunch Republicans were looking for, but swing voters – who could well decide the outcome of the election – were turned off by their bickering in the middle of a financial crisis. Senator McCain's solutions for America's economic woes seemed to many voters like a tired retread of President Bush's failed policies of the past eight years. When Mr McCain responded angrily to Mr Obama's jibe that voters were being offered another Bush term, his responses – about cutting taxes and reducing government bureaucracy in order to create jobs – simply repeated a Republican mantra that voters have decided needs changing.
At the Waldorf, however, Mr McCain showed what might have been, had the economic misfortunes of the past month not been so calamitous. He even had a ready answer for Joe Wurzelbacher's misfortunes, saying: "What they don't know is that Joe the Plumber recently signed a very lucrative contract with a wealthy couple to handle all the work on all seven of their houses." The reference, of course, was to his faux pas in the summer when he was unable to recall how many homes he and his wife owned at a time when many Americans were having theirs repossessed.
In one of his less elegant responses out on the trail, Mr Obama responded to Mr Wurzelbacher's question about the higher taxation of people earning more than $250,000 by saying he wanted to "spread the wealth around". It was caught on camera and instantly uploaded to YouTube, much like his remark during the primary elections about white voters in rural areas being "bitter" and "clinging to religion".
Mr McCain's campaign team is still milking the Joe the Plumber story for all it is worth, and has sent out tens of thousands of emails and aired television ads that it hopes will rally voters. "Spread the wealth around. We will focus on that," said Steve Schmidt, Mr McCain's chief strategist. "Spread the wealth around was a big mistake."
Senator McCain's if-only moment at the charity dinner was too short-lived for his supporters. Behind the scenes, even senior aides admit his campaign is at its lowest ebb after one of the toughest weeks imaginable. They are looking at a bleak electoral map of the US, in which solidly pro-Republican states have flipped Democrat. As a result, they are hunting for what they call a "narrow-victory scenario" in an ever-diminishing number of states. Some prominent Republicans are distancing themselves from the McCain camp, hoping they will not be dragged down with him and thrown out of office in a bloodbath election. Charlie Crist, the popular Florida governor, decided to go to Disneyland rather than attend a McCain rally. Party leaders must now decide whether to spend money defending Mr McCain in states that traditionally vote Republican where he is losing momentum, or fighting to hold on to congressional seats in the face of a Democratic landslide.
Latest opinion polls show Mr Obama racing ahead. A Zogby/Reuters survey puts him on 49 per cent to Mr McCain's 44 per cent, while the New York Times estimates the gap between the candidates to be 14 per cent. In the sprint to the finish line, the McCain team must play a defensive game instead of trying to snatch vulnerable states away from the Democrats. The best Mr McCain can hope for is to hold on to some of the states George Bush won in 2004, which were considered safe for the Republicans until a few weeks ago. The surge of enthusiasm Mr McCain enjoyed after appointing Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate has been eradicated by the financial turmoil and Mr Bush's diminished reputation, which is now approaching vanishing point.
That explains why Mr McCain's plane was suddenly diverted to Florida yesterday, to be followed by only his second visit to the once-secure North Carolina. He will then return to Virginia, which has only picked a Democrat for the White House once since 1948, and where the polls are predicting a 10 percentage point landslide for Senator Obama. "The scenario for winning for us is a narrow-victory scenario," Mr Schmidt said, "The fact we are in the race at all ... is a miracle because the environment is so bad and the wind is so strong."
Meanwhile, Mr McCain, referring to his earlier non-appearance on The David Letterman Show, has since twice apologised to his host, admitting: "I screwed up."
Come 4 November, those words may prove to have been prophetic.
White tie and gags: Jokes from the Waldorf
Embedded video from CNN Video
"I have to say tonight's venue isn't really what I'm used to. I was originally told we'd be able to move this outdoors to Yankee Stadium, and can somebody tell me what happened to the Greek columns that I requested?"
"What you may not know is that Barack is actually Swahili for "That One". And my middle name is not what you think. It's actually Steve. That's right. Barack Steve Obama."
"I do love the Waldorf-Astoria, though. You know, I hear that from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room."
"Contrary to the rumours you have heard, I was not born in a manger. I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save Planet Earth."
"John McCain is on to something ... There was a point in my life when I started palling around with a pretty ugly crowd. I've got to be honest. These guys were serious deadbeats, they were lowlifes, they were unrepentant, no-good punks. That's right: I've been a member of the United States Senate.''
"Michael Bloomberg recently made some news by announcing he's going to be rewriting the rules and running for a third term, which caused Bill Clinton to say, 'You can do that?'"
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