The Second Presidential Debate – no second coming for McCain

Staying up till 4 am to watch  Senators Obama and McCain debate in a town hall setting may seem extreme. There was no need for coffee to get through this, the adrenalin being that one of these men will in January 2009 be making decisions that will impact not just the USA but the global community.  The stakeholders in this are more then just the American voters.

As the mud slinging of the last few days suggested, McCain went for Obama’s record on everything from environment to taxation, and pointing out that he had been a rebel with a cause against the leaders of his party. That however gave Obama the cover to act like he was responding to McCain’s personal attacks – though he did so impassioned and matter of fact. McCain came out swinging, while Obama kept dancing timing jabs just right but looking to keep ahead on points.

Both candidates kept to the Queens bury rules of nothing below the waist. There was no mention of Bill Ayers or Charles Keating. If you kept your eye off the fists, you could see the policies that they were suggesting. Obama saying that energy was a top national security issue, not just environment. McCain not trusting federal government to be as effective as the private sector. People may moan that there were no specifics of how they would do these things. What they did not mention, especially in McCain’s up beat assessment of America, is that the global financial crisis may make it exceedingly difficult to effect real change.

Obama looked Presidential, standing straight looking people in the eye. He was focused on the significance of the question, and saying what he would do about it, though at times he kept referring to people as if they were separate from him, saying you most of you, explaining at one point that his wealth and health plan as a senator gave them a difference in quality of life that should be available to all when it came to to coverage and opportunity. McCain was more trying to come across as one of the people, constantly saying my friends, shaking the petty officer’s hand thanking him for serving his country. McCain’s movement while answering questions seemed like he did not know what angle he should be facing the questioner or the hall. If Obama’s movement was panther like, McCain’s was like a wound up toy.

That difference came across especially in the manner in which they listened to the other respond. Obama sitting on his chair, listening – confident while engaged. McCain in contrast was constantly moving, fidgeting, ready to keep going, writing things down on the note pad. At one point when asked to list priorities on health, energy and education McCain wrote them down. This body language contrast made Obamam look magisterial while McCain looked agitated. At one point, when pointing out that he had not supported Bush’s environmental plan, he indicated that the person who had by pointing to Obama and saying “That one”.

Earmarks was the one thing that McCain came back to again and again. However, $18 billion of government spending seems insignificant when you consider that Freddy Mac and Fanny Mae and the current bail out are about $1.5 trillion. McCain should have been locked in a room with economic and financial ad visors for 48 hours and use this debate as a chance to outline an economic policy. He missed that opportunity – though the $3 million dollar projector earmarked that Obama had supported (though not voted as it never went that far) for the Adler Planetarium to replace their whole system, which was beyond repair being 40 years old.

There were many jabs that Obama could have given, but perhaps like Ali watching a prize fighter already

The debate did not quite live up to this battle, but the stakes could be just as high

The debate did not quite live up to this battle, but the stakes could be just as high

falling it may have seemed undignified. McCain kept linking himself to Regan, perhaps hoping that association would appeal to former Regan Democrats. However, just like being in the same room as a former terrorist does not make you one, knowing former Presidents does not make you one either.

Overall this seemed a more clear win for Obama then the last debate – the assured body language in the town hall format gace him a clear edge over McCain. He also managed to come across older then he is – in a positive way, while McCain was pacing. Just listening to what they said the result would be closer. McCain went on the attack, and voters looking for reasons not to support Obama and trust an experienced politician wanting change may well still go for McCain. The problem is that undecideds are becoming less and less as polling day draws – meaning that people changing their minds will be a crucial factor come election day. On a score system I would give Obama 3.5/5 and McCain 2.75/5 – McCain needed to offer a vision not just an assured competence based on experience to win this debate, while Obama had to look like he was ready. Instead McCain looked like someone that knows they are failing a job interview and falls back on their CV to try and turn it around rather than selling themselves as a person.

Writer Verdict McCain score Obama score
Moe Lane, RedState “McCain got some good shots in with Fannie/Freddie, Obama got a good moment or two betraying the progressives over nuclear power, offshore drilling, and Israel. I’ll give the closing statement to McCain, but Obama humanises amazingly when he’s talking about his wife. No insanely bad howlers this go-round. This was, in fact, kind of boring all around.” *** ***
Andrew Sullivan, The Atlantic This debate was “devastating and possibly electorally fatal” for John McCain – a “wipe-out”. The Democratic candidate came out on top on substance, clarity, empathy, style and authority. Mr McCain appeared “a little out of it”. * *****
Hugh Hewitt, Townhall Mr McCain made up a lot of ground in this debate. He was strong on two of his most important points – taxes and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Obama appeared cautious and evidently inexperienced. The Republican finished stronger, while Mr Obama “flailed about ineffectively”. ***** *
Jim Geraghty, National Review blog “Generally dull… and a bunch of answers that were very predictable to those of us who have been following this race. Because he’s trailing, we needed to see something different from McCain tonight. It wasn’t a bad night for him, and most of his answers were fine. But there wasn’t anything that any of us are going to remember in a couple of days.” ** **
Jennifer Rubin, Pajamas Media “Fireworks there were not. The debate lagged and dragged and at times was downright dull. The most decisive moment on national security occurred at the end where McCain bonded with a chief petty officer questioner and pledged to support Israel in defending itself against a nuclear-armed Iran.” But Mr McCain did himself some good in the debate. The “polished orator” Barack Obama, meanwhile, “fumbled” an easy final question. **** **
Josh Marshall, Talking Points Memo “A marginal victory for Obama on points,” says Josh Marshall, but a “substantial” one in terms of the overall race. “McCain did fine. I think his supporters will think he put in a solid performance. But the bottom line is that right now McCain is losing. He has to shake things up. But he didn’t.” ** ****
Robert Shrum, Huffington Post “The reality of this debate is that McCain didn’t pass the threshold on the economy. He can’t get there with blather about earmarks; the voters aren’t dumb. The big story tonight: Americans are becoming increasingly comfortable with the idea of President Obama.” * *****

The scores assigned to the candidates represent the BBC’s interpretation of the writers’ comments. One star indicates a poor performance, five stars an excellent one.[BBC News]

CNN’s poll of debate-watchers found 54% said Mr Obama had done the best job, compared with 30% for Mr McCain.

CBS’s poll of undecided voters suggested 39% thought Mr Obama the winner, with 27% for Mr McCain and 35% calling it a draw. [BBC News]

McCain needs to work on his material and stature if he is going to be the comeback kid in these debates. However, if his campaign can sow enough seeds of doubts about Obama’s record then he may yet win the undecided and the leaning voters. Time though is running out to swing enough of them in the key marginal seats.

OTHER BLOGS:

The Presidential Debate (first)

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