Having already logged nearly 27 years as a Washington politician, John McCain is clearly a master of the game. When it comes time to dish the dirt, he keeps his hands clean as he tut-tuts about the incivility of our politics. He looks good doing it – the Washington press generally loves it when he's in pious mode on the high road – and, meanwhile, he gets to reap the rewards of the dirt being dished. Why pilot your own Swift Boat when it's so much more attractive to condemn those who do it for you?

Case in point: His artful dance with North Carolina Republican leaders, who have fashioned a low-road, anti-Obama advertisement that is slated to air on statewide TV next Monday.

By the way, you'll be seeing his choreography a lot during the months to come. It's really a win-win for the presumptive Republican nominee; various GOP locals and conservative freelancers will chuck the muck at Obama - they're already doing it - and McCain will take the opportunity to tut-tut while the message circulates to the masses.

The North Carolina ad is officially aimed at the dueling Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Beth Perdue and Richard Moore, both of whom have endorsed Obama, but it's actually a deft piece of guilt by association that ties Perdue, Moore – and, most importantly, Obama – to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's now-famous declaration of "God damn America."

Apparently, it's never too early to play the jingoism/fear card. From the text: "For 20 years, Barack Obama sat in his pew, listening to his pastor… (Cue video clip of Wright's cuss phrase)...Now Beth Perdue and Richard Moore endorse Barack Obama. They should know better. He's just too extreme for North Carolina."

In response, McCain has played the tut-tut card. He sent a letter to the North Carolina GOP, and it says in part, "The television advertisement you are planning to air degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats. In the strongest terms, I implore you to not run this advertisement. This ad does not live up to the very high standards we should hold ourselves to in this campaign...we need not engage in political tactics that only seek to divide the American people. Once again, it is imperative that you withdraw this offensive advertisement."

But, as McCain well knows, it makes no difference whether state party leaders ultimately change their minds and shelve their plans to air it on TV. Who needs TV…when you already have YouTube? The ad is already out there, spreading the insinuation that Obama is an un-American weirdo who worshipped with a weirdo who scares white people.

The ad itself has been in the news since Wednesday, in part because the McCain people made sure that his letter of protest went public (along with an obligatory letter of protest from the Republican National Committee), thereby drawing press coverage. A classic example of how it works: the Raleigh News & Observer covered the story, with emphasis on McCain's scripted indignation. Then it asked its online readers, "Should the state Republican party run a TV ad about Jeremiah Wright?" – and to help readers weigh the matter, it posted the YouTube link to the ad itself…which gave the state GOP exactly what it wanted, mass exposure of its message.

Meanwhile, yesterday, McCain was still tut-tutting, this time in remarks at a public event: "In the case of this North Carolina ad, all I can do is publicly state that is not in keeping with the tradition of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, and I will bring every pressure to bear that I can to stop it."

He knows full well that the toothpaste is already out of the YouTube on this one. But even if we take his indignant words and pious promises at face value, they do not measure up to real action. If he really intended to "bring every pressure to bear," he could do a number of things:

He could declare that, unless the North Carolina GOP obeys his wishes, he will not set foot in North Carolina between now and November.

And that he will refuse to campaign for North Carolina Republican congressional candidates.

And that he will refuse to appear at any North Carolina GOP fundraisers.

But, of course, he has vowed nothing of the sort. Which is yet another reason why maverick requires quotation marks.