MCCAIN TRIES TO CONTAIN FIRE HE STARTED…. For quite a while now, the McCain campaign has stoked the fires of hate, fear, and ignorance, and Republican crowds have responded in kind, using increasingly incendiary rhetoric of their own.

But yesterday, after having egged on enraged supporters all week, McCain tried a different tack — he tried to contain the fire he helped set.

At an event in Minnesota, a man told McCain he’s “scared” of Obama winning. McCain responded, “I have to tell you. Sen. Obama is a decent person and a person you don’t have to be scared of as president of the United States.” The crowd booed relentlessly. Soon after, a woman said she’s “read about” Obama and concluded that he’s “an Arab.” McCain took the microphone from her and said, “No, Ma’am. No, Ma’am. He’s a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues.” And once again, the crowd booed McCain.

Note the contrast. Yesterday afternoon, the McCain campaign defended supporters who’ve shouted words like “treason” and “terrorist” at recent events. On Wednesday, when a nut whipped a Wisconsin crowd into a frenzy lambasting Obama and “socialists,” McCain told the audience how “right” he thought the lunatic was.

And yet, as of yesterday, McCain has rediscovered his interest in a “respectful” discourse.

Obviously, I’m not going to criticize McCain for having done the right thing. It was overdue, but welcome nevertheless.

But under the circumstances, it’s not unreasonable to wonder what brought about this rather dramatic change of heart. Some might be inclined to think McCain reflected on what his campaign has become, and felt regret. By defending Obama yesterday, this argument goes, McCain decided to take a firm stand in support of decency.

Then there’s the other possible explanation: inciting rage was a political loser. McCain set this fire deliberately, but discovered that he was the one getting burned as observers from across the spectrum were repulsed by the campaign’s tactics. More and more news outlets were focusing less on McCain and more on his tolerance for unhinged and hysterical and attacks.

Folks can come to their own conclusion about this, but I’m inclined to believe the latter.

Post Script: One more thing. Yesterday’s comments do not wipe the slate clean. McCain and Palin have spent a few months insisting that Obama is a dangerous lying pervert who “pals around” with terrorists. McCain was booed yesterday for describing Obama as a “decent person.” But one ounce of decency doesn’t mean much when a ton of sleaze rests on the other side of the scale.

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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.