SCRAPPING THE AYERS ATTACK ALREADY?…. The political world was told to expect some ugly, guilt-by-association attacks last night. We’d hear about Bill Ayers. And Tony Rezko. And maybe even Jeremiah Wright. The phrase “unrepentant terrorist” would be bandied about.

And then, nothing. The telegraphed punch was never thrown. Did McCain just forget? Or did he perhaps think that a town-hall forum was the wrong setting for the attacks?

Apparently, this was deliberate. This morning on “Fox & Friends,” McCain aide Nicole Wallace backed off Ayers-related talk, saying the association “is between Barack Obama and the voters.”

The Politico reported that the smear campaign that’s been in the works for days may be scrapped altogether.

[McCain’s] top aides suggested afterward that, going forward, the candidate wouldn’t focus on the former domestic terrorist nor invoke the name of Obama’s controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Nicolle Wallace, a top McCain adviser, hinted McCain would not bring it up. “If asked about it, of course [he’ll talk about Ayers],” she said.

McCain’s chief strategist, Steve Schmidt all but said the controversial pastor remained off-limits. […]

It’s no mystery why McCain is easing back on, or withholding entirely, such character-based assaults: Even with the $700 billion rescue plan signed into law, the economic crisis appears to be worsening not stabilizing.

“As long as the Dow is down 500 points a day, that’s going to push a lot of the Rezko and Ayers stuff off the front pages,” acknowledged a Republican National Committee official.

It’s hard to know for sure what the thinking is behind all of this. It’s possible that the McCain campaign talked up these attacks just to reintroduce the concept to voters and reporters, and never had any real intention to pursue this tack. Given Sarah Palin’s recent rhetoric, though, this seems unlikely. This really was going to be a major offensive.

So why pull back? Probably because it was a spectacularly bad idea to shift the campaign’s focus away from the economy in the midst of a financial meltdown and deep voter/consumer anxiety.

Greg Sargent added that the shift “suggests that the McCain campaign’s internal polling on how the Ayers stuff is playing is just brutal, likely among independents. It also suggests that Obama’s counter-attack — lambasting McCain’s campaign for wanting to change the subject from the economy to personal attacks — has been effective.”

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.