It was, after all, McCain's bailiwick -- foreign policy and national defense. But in any debate, the person who's seen as most expert is the person who has the most to lose. Being seen as the most knowledgeable puts you in the position of defending that perception -- referring to Iranian President Achmedinajad as Akmadoodleberg or whatever the hell it was he said wasn't extremely helpful.
Still that wasn't how McCain lost the debate. It's the nature of the presidential debates, which come so late in the campaign, that voters who are still undecided react to the way candidates behave. Think about it; at this point, there isn't a lot left that we don't know about the candidates' positions. So, if you're still undecided, you're left to make your decision based on other factors -- in this case, that looks to have been how crazy or sane the candidates seemed to be.
And that, to a large extent anyway, is where McCain lost the debate. McCain was, quite frankly, a dick. At points, he was visibly angry, as if the fact that another candidate would have the gall to disagree with his positions was an affront. He accused Obama of being naive and said that he "doesn't understand" just about everything. That argument may work on the stump, but it doesn't work when Barack Obama is standing right there on stage, clearly understanding what he was talking about.
Of course, McCain seemed not to even acknowledge Obama's existence -- never once looking at his opponent. Maybe he didn't know he was there. At any rate, McCain's insistence that Obama was a babe in the woods was contradicted by the reality of the candidate's presence and performance on that same stage. McCain, widely seen as the more experienced debater, behaved as if he weren't at a debate at all, falling back on talking points and recycling applause lines from his RNC acceptance speech and from stump speeches. The audience, having been barred from applauding, sat as politely silent as they'd been directed to. Without all the wild clapping and cheers of a friendly audience, applause lines fell flat and looked like failures to the audience at home.
Throughout all of this, Barack Obama seemed the more presidential of the two. At two points, he actually took control away from the moderator, Jim Lehrer. First, in a back and forth that wasn't going anywhere:
Debate transcript from CNN:
MCCAIN: And Senator Obama is parsing words when he says precondition means preparation.
OBAMA: I am not parsing words.
MCCAIN: He's parsing words, my friends.
OBAMA: I'm using the same words that your advisers use.
[To Lehrer] Please, go ahead.
LEHRER: New lead question.
OBAMA: I've got to make this point, Jim.
OBAMA: He objects...
MCCAIN: I have voted for alternate fuel all of my time...
OBAMA: He -- he -- he objects...
LEHRER: One at a time, please.
OBAMA: He objected...
LEHRER: One at a time.
MCCAIN: No one can be opposed to alternate energy.
OBAMA: All right, fair enough. [To Lehrer] Let's move on. You've got one more energy -- you've got one more question.
LEHRER: This is the last -- last lead question.
None of the pundits or analysts I watched afterward mentioned this and I haven't seen anyone bring it up all weekend. Neither Lehrer nor McCain objected to this and I think it may be that Obama did it so effortlessly that almost no one noticed. But it struck me that Obama displayed leadership here and, not only did PBS's Jim Lehrer follow, but so did McCain. Obama basically ended debate and told everyone to move on and they did. The fact that no one seems to have noticed it only makes it that much more impressive.
By the time it was all over, the pundits declared it a draw. But they were going by points. As I pointed out earlier, at this point in the general election, we already know what these people stand for, what the undecideds are trying to figure out is who they are. You can win or lose one of these things on style, which is exactly what Obama and McCain did Friday night. One guy looked like a president, the other looked like the grumpy old man chasing kids off his lawn.
The results, as surprising as they must've seemed to the talking heads, were no surprise to me. Immediately following the debate, CBS News ran a flash poll of 500 respondents -- 39% gave it to Obama, 25% percent thought it went to McCain. A clear winner, but no real knock out.
Over the weekend, something strange happened. Usually, those early impressions are later influenced by the reactions of the media. And the media was pushing the tied game scenario, so I was expecting the tie story to take hold. It didn't. CNN released polling later and that one put it at 51%-38%, with Obama on top, Even later, on Sunday, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll gave it to Obama 46%-34%. The media narrative of a tie -- which serves the media better than anyone -- didn't catch on. The first impression of Obama taking it stuck.
Still, it's only the first debate and those remaining undecideds are a fickle lot. Obama's rising in the polls and one reason for that is bad news for McCain/Palin:
Barack Obama leads John McCain, 50% to 42% among registered voters in the latest Gallup Poll Daily tracking update for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday -- just one point shy of his strongest showing of the year...
These results, from Sept. 25-27, span the time period since John McCain made the announcement that he was temporarily suspending his campaign and returning to Washington to work for a bipartisan solution to the financial crisis, and since Congressional leaders first announced progress towards the resolution of a financial bailout bill. The results also include one complete day (Saturday) after the first presidential debate on Friday night. McCain had reached a point where he was tied with Obama earlier in the week, but Obama has gained steadily in each of the last three days' reports. Overall, Obama has gained four percentage points over the last three days, while McCain has lost four points, for an eight-point swing in the "gap" or margin.
His big "I'm going to save America" stunt was a bust. Not surprisingly, McCain got nothing out of what I called a no win situation.
But Team McCain can still get a bounce from the next debate, right?
Yeah, that's not so likely. The next debate is the vice presidential debate Thursday and Sarah Palin is reportedly nowhere up to par. Of course, Biden will be in the same position as McCain was -- the position of defending his bona fides. Expectations for Palin are so low that if she manages not to swallow her tongue while answering the first question, she'll probably be seen as a smashing success. But the best McCain/Palin can probably hope for is a tie. "She's not as dumb as everyone thought she was" isn't much of a reason to vote for anyone.
What McCain needs is another game-changer. Palin was one, changing the format of the Republican National Convention in response to hurricane Gustav was another, "suspending" his campaign and running off to Washington was the most recent (and least effective). McCain needs another big stunt for the media to get his game back. Maybe there's a little girl stuck in well he could rescue or something. Or someone in need of his (or Sarah Palin's kidney).
But those "McCAIN WON!" ads have proven to be a tremendous waste of money. He didn't win that debate -- not by a long shot -- and he's not winning the election. Unless he can find something crazy to do in a hurry, he's not going anywhere but down.
Shotgun wedding, anyone?