Wow. Isn't it awfully early in the general election for such a double-barreled assault of unpleasantness? After all, brazenly negative campaigning so often reeks of last-act desperation, of slipping further and further behind. Most national polls, though, show John McCain trailing Barack Obama by only a few points, and one recent survey even put him four points ahead.

Yet McCain is firing away, scarcely pausing to reload. Last week, he appeared to question Obama's patriotism when he said, "It seems to me that Senator Obama would rather lose a war in order to win a political campaign." And his campaign has filled my inbox with dubious denunciations of the Illinois Democrat for canceling a visit with wounded troops in Germany out of vanity. And Wednesday it unveiled a nasty little TV spot called "Celeb." "While Barack Obama is the biggest celebrity in the world," explains a campaign press release, "that doesn't do much to help American families who need relief from high gas prices today or answer the question of whether he's ready to lead."

"Celeb," which will air nationally on cable and in 11 key battleground states, blends footage from Obama's big speech in Berlin with fleeting images of Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton -- somebody's behavior here is definitely tawdry -- while the narrator intones gravely: "He's the biggest celebrity in the world. But is he ready to lead? With gas prices soaring, Barack Obama says no to offshore drilling. And says he'll raise taxes on electricity. Higher taxes, more foreign oil -- that's the real Obama."

Unfortunately for the McCain campaign, early reviews are not good. It was condemned (perhaps not surprisingly) by the New York Times, panned by a consortium of newspapers in Ohio (one of the states where the ad is in rotation), and debunked by the Washington Post. Even Republicans are dismayed. A former McCain strategist told the Atlantic that he thought the ad was "childish."

What interests the Agenda is the line, "He'll raise taxes on electricity." As related by the Post, the McCain camp bases the charge on a statement Obama made in San Antonio: "What we ought to tax is dirty energy, like coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas." What Obama is talking about, of course, is a program to cap greenhouse gas emissions, and as regular watchers of this space know, McCain backs the very same idea. In fact, as the Post points out, McCain and Obama "would raise energy costs by the same amount over the next 12 years, since they have identical short-term emissions goals."

If I didn't know better, I'd say McCain has already concluded he's lost the election.