His appearance in the opening skit of SNL last night. (Clip from official NBC site here, with intro ad.)

The premise and execution of the skit were very funny. Much funnier, except for the physical-humor thrill of seeing Tina Fey and "the real" Sarah Palin on screen on the same show, than Palin's appearance a few weeks ago. This time, McCain and Fey, in the roles of McCain and Palin, were QVC hosts shilling for fine election-related collectibles, like Joe the Plumber action figures. The setup, which poor McCain himself had to lay out, was that airtime just before Election Day was essential  -- but while Obama could pay for a wall-to-wall half-hour special, McCain and Palin couldn't afford anything more than a spot on QVC.

I just watched it again right now, and it's even better than I remember. The only thing we'll miss when this campaign is finished is seeing Fey in her Palin role. "OK, now I'm goin' rogue..." McCain himself was also a charming performer. Not a bit of the crabbed, offended, uncontrollably angry man we saw during the debates. Instead, a little reprise of the "I know this is all bullshit, and I can laugh at myself" McCain as he consistently presented himself in the 1980s and 1990s.

But no candidate who thought he had a prayer of winning would have appeared on this show.

For a candidate coming from behind, every second of the final week of the campaign is like a second in cardiac-surgery operating theater, with absolutely no room for fooling around or wasting time, money, or effort that could be used to sway that last crucial vote. (Think: the last days of Gore-Bush in 2000.)

For a candidate who thinks he's ahead, and might actually become president, inevitably there's a tone of new seriousness right at the end: What we've been working for years is within our grasp, let's not screw this up, and let's be sobered by how different the world is going to look in a few days.

So if McCain really thought he had a chance of catching up, he wouldn't have wasted time on an audience that might repair his reputation among liberals and journalists but does him no good with the crucial swing votes.   And if he thought he were secretly ahead, he wouldn't comport himself this way. He would be more like the stiff character we saw in the debates.

Great TV! But also an unmistakable message.