Archive for the 'Debate' Category

McCain dominates first thirty minutes, loses edge in erratic performance

This was the last presidential debate, the last time McCain had the undivided attention of tens of millions of Americans, and his last obvious opportunity to knock Obama off-balance. He did not do that, and the GOP will now have to come up with emergency measures to stop Obama’s momentum.

McCain scored some points tonight, and that were as much due to Obama’s shaky performance as to the fiery passion McCain brought to the first thirty minutes. In the opening segments, McCain displayed a determination that we had not seen in their previous two encounters. Obama, by contrast, was not focused, his answers dragged on and he let himself be boxed in a corner. He was struggling to answer McCain’s invocation of “Joe the plumber,” and that proved an obstacle to Obama scoring points on the economy. Obama soon recovered and delivered more steady responses, but they were not as powerful and emphatic as in the first two debates.

That McCain was not able to use that opening to score a clear victory tells us a lot about his failings as a candidate - and it serves as a perfect metaphor for the dynamics of the past 6 months.

Ten days ago, I faulted McCain’s lack of a coherent offensive message and his inability to identify a core attack. And tonight, McCain only aggravated this glaring problem in what was his last opportunity to disqualify his opponent. He attacked Obama on so many different issues it became hard to keep track of what he wanted the audience to think about. McCain should have relentlessly attempted to brush a vivid and coherent portrait of the risky Obama the GOP so desperately wants voters to see. Instead, what we got was a potpourri of unrelated charges strung together by a series of non sequiturs.

Instead of sticking to lines of attack that were working, McCain constantly changed gears. He shifted from taxes to socialism to spending to Ayers to ACORN to taxes again to Obama’s present votes in the Illinois State Senate to his “extreme” record on abortion to his unilateralism to his anti-trade positions and to his naive dealings with world leaders. What is the overall picture that emerges out of those attacks, what is McCain’s overarching case

If McCain is simply trying to say that Obama is a big government liberal, that is not a charge that is resonating this year - not after eight years of Bush, not when voters want the Democratic Party to be in power. McCain needs to give voters a reason to not vote for this particular Democrat and, if anything, painting him as yet another congressional liberal who wants more spending and more taxes makes him more familiar to voters. But if McCain wants to make the case that Obama is too much of a risk by invoking Ayers & Co, why spend so much time blasting Obama for just being an old style Democrat?

McCain’s failure to push any line of attack to its end was most evident in what was surely the most eagerly awaited exchange of the night - Bill Ayers. The character was McCain’s opportunity to unsettle Obama. Instead, it was McCain who looked unsettled. At first, he refused to bring up Ayers, instead sounding deeply hurt by John Lewis’s comments and accusing Obama of running a negative campaign; then, a follow-up question led McCain to unload on Obama’s “long association” with Ayers before almost immediately pivoting to declaring that his campaign was focused on getting the economy back on track.

Once McCain chose to go after Ayers without being prompted to do so, he had to go all the way and push the Illinois Senator to try to rattle Obama and obtain some sort of defensive answer. If he was not willing to do so, he should have stuck to other topics and let Ayers go. The middle ground he adopted was the worst of both worlds. If anything, he gave Obama a platform to explain to viewers his version of the Ayers story, point out calmly, for instance, that there were a number of Republicans on that board and then still have time to blame McCain for seeking to not talk about issues and about the economy.

McCain’s chaotic stream of contradictions neutralized his most forceful attacks. Another poorly prepared McCain attack that set up a strong response for Obama was the Republican’s assertion that the Democrat had never stood up to leaders of his own party. Obama calmly countered with a list of examples (some of which substantive, like teacher pay) that elicited more counter-productive mumblings by McCain (”an overwhelming vote”).

Another puzzling moment was McCain’s answer on abortion. Obama himself took the dangerous path of voluntarily talking at length about a topic that a Democrat usually wants to stay away from - even more so when the electoral battle is now being waged on red turf. But McCain chose to appeal solely to the base on a question that is important to many independent female voters. He launched into a powerful diatribe against abortion that extended beyond hitting Obama on partial-birth abortion: McCain also denounced “health provisions,” which he described as part of the “extreme” agenda and taking the risk of turning off some undecided women voters.

All of this only concerns the substance of McCain’s attacks - their tone is an entirely different story. McCain once again let his visceral dislike for Obama shine through, and that was his undoing for the third straight debate. The fire behind his initial references to Joe the Plumber soon gave way to a sense of gimmickry; he was finally on the offensive, but his inability to not use a personal tone undercut even his most effective charges as it made him look more emotional than forceful. While listening to Obama, McCain looked angry, then content,  then annoyed, then exasperated; he sighed, sneered, rolled his eyes and cast stunned and wide-eyed looks on his opponent. When on the attack, he was alternatively fiery, angry, passionate and mean. And then there was the sarcasm, so much sarcasm, constant sarcasm - and can attacks voiced in a tone dripping with contempt ever prove effective?

In short, McCain went through an entire palette of emotions in the span of 90 minutes - and the resulting visuals were atrocious for the Arizona Senator.

This has been the story of the past few months. Just when McCain appears to be making progress, he undermined himself. He picked Sarah Palin and gave up on the experience argument that had been working or him in August; he allowed his campaign to bring up Ayers, mentioned him himself before backing down; his allowed gimmicky routines like his campaign suspension to get in the way of the urgent need for McCain to articulate an economic agenda and distinguish himself from President Bush.

McCain might not have lost tonight, but he did not win either - and that was a self-inflicted wound.

Update: The snap polls give Obama a clear victory, and while this could change as impressions set in the snap polls of the first two debates were confirmed by subsequent numbers. CNN’s poll has Obama winning the debate 58% to 31%;CBS’s poll of uncommitted voters had Obama 53% winning to 22%. Politico/Insider Advantage’s poll of undecided voters has a much smaller margin, 49% to 46% for Obama.

What (if anything) could McCain do tonight?

If the burden in the second debate was solely on John McCain, it is unclear whether there is any burden at all tonight. Absent a major gaffe by Barack Obama, is there anything McCain can do tonight that might change the fundamentals of the race?

McCain’s biggest hope is for Obama to stumble - and not just with a small slip-up that could embarrass him for a day or two. In 2004, the Bush campaign had successfuly attacked John Kerry over his invoking Dick Cheney’s daughter’s sexual orientation to neutralize any positive spin Kerry might have gotten out of the encounter. But what McCain is hoping for isn’t to neutralize Obama for one or two news cycles; Republicans need a gaffe of such proportions that it could reframe the election’s final three weeks. Think, for instance, of Gerald Ford digging himself in a stunning hole on the question of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe.

But how likely is it that a politician as cautious as Obama could trip up in what will be the last of two dozen debates he has gone through this cycle alone? Furthermore, what are the odds of Obama committing a game-changing gaffe in the debate that will be devoted to the economy? This is not to say that Obama is more comfortable talking about the economy than about foreign policy, but that he has less to prove on the former - just as McCain has less to prove on the latter.

McCain was less pilloried for his foreign policy gaffes than Obama would have been if he had confused Shiite and Sunni or gotten the geography of Afghanistan and Pakistan wrong); the reverse could be true on domestic policy. If Obama had made a mistake when talking about Iraq or Russia, it could have reinforced the GOP’s argument that he is not ready to be commander-in-chief; if he stumbles when talking about health care premiums, what preexisting voter fear will it reinforce?

It is up to McCain, then, to do something that might change the race. The problem is that there is no obvious answer as to what might be a good idea.

The first strategy would be for McCain to shine on his own terms and impress voters to such an extent that they turn back to him. The problem with this is that McCain has shown no potential for such a performance in the first two presidential debates, and he is even more unlikely to turn one in when the conversation is about the economy.

McCain could try to seize the moment by making some spotlight-stealing announcement. Perhaps one that would be truly dramatic (some are suggesting a one-term pledge, though I cannot imagine McCain would do that tonight when the obvious place to milk such a possibility was in his convention speech), perhaps simply coming in with new substantial policy proposals that would allow McCain to control the debate and convince voters that he has a plan to fix the economy and the necessary leadership on an issue voters don’t think of as his strongpoint.

But the trouble is that voters are settling on Obama now, and McCain needs to first and foremost convince them to keep an open mind. Putting in a strong performance of his own is not enough, he needs to give voters a reason not to cast a ballot for his opponent.

Here is where McCain is in a truly difficult position. He has tried to attack Obama in previous debates but it has not done him much good; he chose to bring up Ayers on the trail over the past ten days, but polls suggest that the move might have backfired and hurt McCain’s favorability ratings more than Obama’s.

So does McCain invoke Ayers tonight? Does he bring up Rezko, ACORN or other of Obama’s potential weak points? If he does not, what can McCain possibly do that he has not tried before? And if he does not, does he not risk his negativity to backfire? Obama has surely rehearsed answers on all of these issues, starting with Ayers, and most of his conters probably include a pivot to accusing McCain of looking to change the subject away from the economy and being out-of-touch. That charge has worked for Obama over the past ten days, and McCain strategists must know it could work tonight.

Furthermore, McCain runs the risk of ruining his best attacks by displaying the visceral animosity he feels towards his opponent. He has been unable to hide it in their previous two encounters, and it has undercut his performances. Can McCain go on the attack while controling his condescendation tonight? That might be the most important question of the night.

Update: The Washington Post’s investigative piece on McCain, Verizon, AT&T and cell phone towers comes at the worst possible time for McCain. If it breaks through, it could knock any momentum McCain gets out of the night

In second debate, McCain wastes one of his last opportunities

Two down, one to go - and John McCain has made no progress in his uphill quest to close the gap.

Obama delivered a superior performance that should help him solidify his lead. This might not have been a runaway victory for the Illinois Senator, but then again he was not attempting to score a knockout.

Neither candidate, in fact, landed a deadly blow, nor did they even try to. But the burden was on McCain to make some sort of move tonight; instead, he barely laid a glove on his opponent. He went on the offensive with some biting criticism, but he unveiled no new line of attack and renounced any references to Ayers and Rezko. Yet, McCain still managed to look like the aggressor and it did not suit him well.

To be fair to the Arizona Senator, his failings were due to the debate’s rules as much as to his performance. McCain derives his almost proverbial strength in this format from his spontaneous interactions with the questioner, but this was not enough of a town-hall to give McCain an opening to connect with the audience. The panel’s questions were strikingly impersonal, and Tom Brokaw’s own queries took as much time if not more than those coming from undecided voters. Despite rules that stated that candidates could not engage one another, this encounter contained more direct exchanges than the previous one - making it more like a conventional debate in which candidates primarily address each other and the moderator.

Perhaps most importantly, the debate was overwhelmingly about the economy - and this has been a pattern outside of McCain’s control that has been hurting his candidacy for three weeks now. Only an hour into the night did the conversation shift to foreign policy, and a full third of the remaining time was used to discuss peace-keeping and humanitarian missions - not the terrain on which McCain is hoping to make a mark.

On the other hand, Obama’s edge did arise out of the two candidates’ performances. To the extent that this was a town-hall, the candidates’ body language became more important and Obama’s calm demeanor came across better than McCain’s agitated pacing. For the second debate in a row, Obama looked steady, forceful and precise on the issues while McCain once again let his disdain for his opponent get the better of him and often seemed on the defensive.

For one, and unlike in the first debate, one moment could come to encapsulate this encounter and play into the narrative of McCain’s unrestrained disdain: his addressing Obama as “that one” is the type of line that can define a debate and that the press could run away with. McCain has been losing control of his public image over the past few weeks, and the last thing he needed was yet another cringe-inducing snide comment. (Ben Smith suggests that some Republicans are happy with that moment!) And while McCain controlled his condescension far better than he did ten days ago, the night was full of snide comments - most of which were entirely unnecessary.

It is one thing for a candidate to go on the attack, but McCain again and again wasted his time hurling jibes that only political junkies will pick up on. Take, for instance, the very first sentence McCain uttered tonight, taking a hit at Obama’s refusal to join him in town halls - few undecided voters are likely to get that reference, most will probably just be left wondering why such a simple sentence sounded snide. Perhaps most importantly, why is no one telling McCain to stop referencing figures from the past - Tip O’Neil and Teddy Roosevelt, for instance. McCain even spent time attacking Herbert Hoover’s protectionism!

Meanwhile, Obama delivered some particularly sharp responses. He was predictably stronger when answering economic questions, which gave him yet another opportunity to channel middle-class anxieties. Overall, his improvement over some of his debate performances in the summer and fall of 2007 is remarkable. Whereas 12 months ago Obama might have sounded too professorial, he is now able to talk about his policies without drowning the viewer in numbers that few people can follow. When Obama was allowed a rebuttal on taxes, for instance, he offered a deliberately slow - and crisp - description of his tax plan that helped him immune himself against McCain’s attacks.

But Obama dominated no segment as much as the lengthy discussion on health care. These few minutes could very well remembered among those moments that helped Obama cement his lead. Any Democrat will have an edge when the conversation turns to health care, but McCain was particularly weak in his response. Obama, on the other hand, looked eminently comfortable discussing the specifics of his own plan while delivering one of his most emphatic responses in his mention of his dying mother and forcefully attacking McCain’s proposals (this is, after all, one of the main topics on which Obama has been going after his opponent over the past few days).

Most devastating were Obama’s responses to McCain’s health care attacks. When the Republican nominee hit his opponent for looking to bring in government to solve the crisis, Obama effectively embraced government’s role in cracking up insurance companies. And when McCain focused on Obama’s support for mandates, the Democrat pointed out that he supported mandates for children and hit McCain for having voted against SHIP - a winning issue for Democrats that the congressional committees tried to play up last year at the time of the vote. (For anyone who remembers - and misses! - the debates between Clinton and Obama, seeing Obama accused of privileging mandates was truly a sight to behold.)

Perhaps most surprising was that Obama performed as well in the foreign policy segment as he did in the first hour. Very little time was devoted to McCain’s favorite topic - the surge - and Obama himself brought up the issue Republicans like to hit him on the most (his willingness to meet with the leaders of Iran and North Korea) to blast McCain as a continuation of Bush’s policies. When McCain blasted Obama for wanting to warn Pakistan of America’s military plans, the Illinois Senator unleashed one of his sharpest counters of the night, hitting McCain for having sung “bomb Iran” and for publicly pressing for the invasion of Baghdad. “That’s not speaking softly,” he said. Obama also artfully turned the table on McCain’s charge that he “does not understand” national security.

John McCain has 27 more days to change the tide, and only one more debate. For Republicans, it’s now a race against time - and that will probably lead to an increase in their attacks. For Democrats, it’s a matter of running out the clock, and at the very least Obama did that tonight.

Update: A number of instant snap polls and focus groups seem to give Obama the win, particularly CNN’s survey that has Obama winning the debate 54% to 30%. Respondents also found Obama was the strongest leader, an important measure for the Illinois Senator. CBS’s poll of undecided voters gave it to Obama 40% to 26%. And SUSA’s two polls from Washington and from California gave the win to Obama by huge margins. It is true that those are blue states, but independents preferred Obama by very significant margins as well in both states. And judging by some early write-ups in the press, it looks like we will hear a lot about “that one.”

Why the burden tonight is on John McCain

John McCain has been playing catch-up for months, but he has fallen further behind. The first two debates did nothing to stop Obama’s momentum, quite the contrary; to the extent that the first presidential debate moved numbers, it appears to have helped the Democrat. Now four weeks from Election Day, the gap between the two candidates keeps widening - and another poor debate performance for the Arizona Senator could just about kill his candidacy.

But this debate is crucial for McCain not only because he is trailing, but also because he lags way behind in the other metrics with which he could hope to mount a comeback: the fundamentals, the ground game and fundraising.

McCain cannot expect to close the margin based on micro factors or under-the-radar strategies: the GOP does not have the money to properly hammer Obama, it does not have the organization to gain an advantage at the state level that it does not have at the national level, and the economy is too dominant an issue (especially after the Dow fell more than 800 points over two days) for the McCain campaign to easily change the subject.

A glance at the two parties’ spending in the key battleground states (as compiled by Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza) confirms that Obama is massively outspending his opponent. In the week that ended October 6th, Obama spent $20 million nationally while the GOP (McCain and the RNC) spent a bit more than $12 million. The contrast is particularly dramatic in some states: In Florida, Obama spent nearly $3 million while McCain spent about $600,000 - that’s almost a 5:1 ratio! In North Carolina, Obama spent $1.5 million, while McCain spent $137,000. In Virginia, Obama spent $1.6 million, while McCain and the RNC spent $909,000.

Obama also outspent his opponent by significant margins in Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Obama spent $3 million to the GOP’s $2 million (PA is the state in which both parties have invested the most, and it is paying off for Obama who has jumped to a double-digit lead in a number of recent polls). Only in Ohio and New Hampshire are the two parties spending equally, only in Minnesota and Iowa is McCain outspending Obama - and in neither state does he have much to show for it.

This makes it that much more difficult for the GOP to discredit Obama over his ties to Ayers or Rezko without risking their ads being drowned by the volume of Democratic counter-attacks. McCain’s strategy thus has to rely on shifting the national narrative and on exploiting every free media opportunity he has - and what better place to do that than at a presidential debate watched by tens of millions nationwide?

There are only two debates left, and the one scheduled for next week will be devoted to the economy - certainly not McCain’s forte. Yes, the GOP might find other opportunities to change the dynamic, but tonight’s debate is the most obvious moment at which McCain can hope to climb back in contention.

Unfortunately for McCain, it might be obvious that tonight is a crucial opportunity, but it is certainly not obvious what he should do to take advantage of it. Even if McCain delivers strong answers on the economy, even if he performs beautifully in a town-hall format in which he is comfortable, how will that change the pro-Democratic fundamentals? And if he hits Obama too strongly, will that not strengthen the narrative that he is erratic and confirm the first debate’s imagery of a mean McCain?

And perhaps most problematically for McCain, is there anything he can do but hope for an Obama game-changing gaffe? The burden might be on McCain to do something, but voters are thinking about Obama. For the GOP, the debate needs to do more than make McCain shine - it needs to disqualify Obama, and that is obviously a difficult proposition.

Furthermore, Obama has shown over the past few days (as he had in the Democratic primary, particularly in a few dramatic minutes at the South Carolina debate) that he will not hesitate to counter-punch. And in many ways, Obama would be perfectly happy to follow McCain down the gutter if the Arizona Senator paints Obama as dangerous and risky. What Democrats need is for the debate to preserve the status-quo; for voters to come out feeling angry at both candidates is just as good a way of getting there than for them to come out feeling that both candidates did well.

VP candidates stay on message… and will thus no longer matter

When the time comes to casting their ballot, voters will not be thinking about who will be number two, so it is very unlikely a vice-presidential candidate ends up convincing undecided voters. But a VP contender can become a distraction and undercut a campaign, making it their one and only goal to do no harm.

A month ago, the GOP had high hopes that Sarah Palin would defy that rule and truly transform the campaign in McCain’s favor, but a disastrous September for the Alaska Governor undercut that possibility. After that Couric interview, Palin was threatening to become a national laughingstock. Tonight, she had to look qualified enough to remove herself from the political conversation - and that’s exactly what she did.

Only rarely did she look like the Palin of the Couric interviews. She was able to offer coherent answers and, for the first half of the debate, repeatedly put Biden on the defensive. One crucial improvement in her performance was her new-found ability to pivot. When facing Gibson and Couric, Palin was answering every question directly, and that made for an awkward collection of badly phrased talking points. Tonight, Palin ignored most of the questions that were aimed her way, especially in the economic segments, and she immediately pivoted most of her answers to tax cuts and energy, tax cuts and energy.

That might have been too transparent at times; her frequent - and often times explicit - refusal to consider the question hat was being put to her undercut her claim of offering straight-talk and it prevented her to make the most of her early aggressiveness. But that strategy made for an infinitely better performance than that of her recent interviews. Yes, she was often delivering talking points - but she was doing it well, unlike earlier attempts.

That said, a few of Palin’s answers, particularly the one on climate change and nuclear proliferation, were nonsensical (”I don’t wanna argue about the causes,” she said on global warming). Her answers on vice-presidential prerogatives and on Iran/Pakistan were very weak, and she did not say a word about Darfur when asked about it - in fact, she expressed pride in her inability to do so. She got the name of the commander of the Afghan forces wrong. She sometimes seemed at a loss of words when asked to follow-up on an issue for the second time, most noticeably in that awkward pause followed by the poorly-delivered and childish-sounding “white flag of surrender in Iraq” line.

As the debate went on, Palin increasingly and noticeably fell back on her talking points. But the feistiness she exhibited for the first forty minutes guaranteed that she exceeded expectations. Simply put, no stumbles of hers will emerge as the story of the night. Palin took care of those voters (if there were any) who were looking to support McCain but were reluctant to do so because of Palin’s presence on the ticket.

To a lesser degree, the Obama campaign was worried that Joe Biden might give a condescending-sounding answer that the GOP would immediately spin as sexist. That did not happen - far from it. Biden was careful to sound respectful, and he aimed all of his shots at “John” without looking like was ignoring his opponent.

Biden did not perform strongly throughout the debate. Only in the second half did he seem to find his rhythm, and for a while he seemed off-balance, unable to connect to viewers the way Palin was doing. But it is precisely on connectivity that Biden transformed himself. In the last 50 minutes, he found more gravitas as he discussed foreign policy and his Senate record (”I went to Chad,” he exclaimed, echoing McCain’s travel stories from the first presidential debate) and looked like a far more emphatic figure than most viewers were probably expecting. Some of Biden’s late answers were simply superb - particularly his emotional description of single parenthood and the way he transformed the question about a Biden Administration into a powerful recitation of Obama’s priorities.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin effectively neutralized each other and themselves tonight, and neither is likely to matter much from now on. But to the extent that Republicans were much more fearful going into tonight than Democrats were, this is first and foremost a huge relief for the McCain campaign.

But there is a second metric in which the debate should be judged: Who made the more forceful argument that will impact the way voters think about the top of the ticket? Both debaters tonight were aware of this question, and both stayed relentlessly on message. In fact, they often complimented each other but relentlessly attacked “John” and “Barack.”

And here, it is Biden’s performance that should prove more effective than Palin’s. The Alaska Governor forcefully attacked Obama, blaming him in particular for voting to cut funding for the troops and for wanting to meet with “downright dangerous” dictators. But she failed to give her attacks a coherent theme: No overall picture of Obama emerged out of her comments, only a collection of negative tidbits.

This is precisely what the McCain campaign has not been able to do over the past few months: disqualify Obama. The Illinois Senator is leading in the polls, his favorability ratings are high. Unless they are given a reason to not vote for him, it now looks like many voters are perfectly willing to settle on him, if for no other reason than they want a Democrat in the White House. Palin could not make the readiness argument against Obama (an attack the McCain campaign appears to have stunningly abandoned in recent weeks), and she was reduced to arguing that he was too extreme, too liberal. She accused the Democratic ticket of favoring “redistribution of wealth,” for instance, to which Biden answered that he called it “fairness.”

On the other hand, Biden had the easier task of tying John McCain to President Bush. “The issue is how different is John McCain’s [policy] going to be than George Bush’s,” he said at one point. In his answers on Iraq, he effectively and repeatedly tied McCain with Vice President Cheney, and he offered consistent explanations of why McCain was no maverick. Biden often sounded almost comically on message, but that is the life of a vice-presidential candidate. Overall, Biden as attack-dog was crisp and he was systematic - and that made for a devastating combination.

Palin defended McCain’s independence. And she had a strong line when she acknowledged that “there’ve been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are in every administration” and specifically cited the handling of the war. But she did not offer specific and evocative instances of disagreement, which is an area I have long argued McCain could offer more. She also protested Biden’s constant referrals to Bush - “for a ticket that wants to talk about change and look into the future, there’s just too much finger pointing” - but that certainly did not get Biden to shy away from them. In fact, Palin helped him by choosing to inexplicably rush to Cheney’s rescue.

Coming out of a debate, voters are more likely to be thinking about John McCain’s ties to George Bush than they are to be thinking about Barack Obama’s lack of qualifications or radical politics. That’s probably not enough to seal the deal with most undecided voters, but the best Biden could have hoped for tonight was to lay the groundwork of Obama’s future attacks.

In short, Sarah Palin performed well but McCain was the night’s clearest loser - and that’s ultimately all Democrats care about.

In debate with no defining moment, visuals could help Obama

Despite Jim Lehrer’s best attempts to get the candidates to engage each other, neither candidate attempted to land a deadly blow. There were no memorable one-liners, nor any gigantic mistakes. This debate is unlikely to give one candidate a jolt of momentum - and that is better news for Barack Obama since it is John McCain who is playing catch-up at the moment.

The foreign policy debate was McCain’s best opportunity to convince voters Obama was too risky a choice on national security. While it might be too early to say that Obama managed to address voters’ doubts, it seems safe to say that McCain’s attempts to paint Obama as an ignorant ingenue did not succeed in disqualifying his opponent.

To try to declare a winner in a debate with no home run is an inherently subjective exercise. It is difficult to know what undecided voters might react to or what they were even looking for. But when a debate lacks a defining moment that dominates people’s perceptions, the overall visuals become that much more important. And here is where Obama might have gained an edge tonight: he seemed to be more in control of his image, and better aware of what is likely to come across well on television.

In one of the debate’s tensest moments, Obama turned to McCain to attack his support for the Iraq War. “John, you like to pretend that the war started in 2007,” he said, before launching into a list of McCain’s early mistakes. “You were wrong,” he asserted repeatedly. This was a made-for-TV moment, and McCain’s immediate comeback was bound to work its way in the clip that cable news are now going to play over and over again. So what did McCain answer? “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”


That moment exemplified one of the night’s trends: McCain let Obama get under his skin and wasted some of his time on attacks that are unlikely to do much good. Pressed on his refusal to say that he would meet with the Prime Minister of Spain, McCain responded, “I’m not going to set the White House visitors schedule… I don’t even have my own seal yet.” Was that even intended to convince anybody? Besides political junkies who treat every campaign subplot like a major story, I doubt more than a handful of voters understood that the seal reference was meant as an attack against Obama, let alone what it was referencing.

More often than not, McCain’s shots seemed solely designed to let him vent his contempt. McCain must have known that he had to control his awkward smiles, and yet his condescension was stunningly transparent throughout these 90 minutes.

He smirked, he sneered, he scoffed, he sighed - sometimes audibly even when he was not on screen - in what seemed like a remake of Al Gore’s first debate performance in 2000. McCain looked impatient when Obama spoke, and that impatience trickled down to his own answers. This was especially the case in the debate’s second half, when McCain seemed to grow more personally invested. How voters come to view this aspect of McCain’s performance will be decisive: Will it be seen as passionate or as erratic and overly negative?

My sense is that McCain’s making no effort to hide his obvious disdain for Obama will make viewers conclude the latter. The Republican nominee was determined to cast Obama as an inexperienced politician. Over and over again, he repeated that Obama “doesn’t understand.” But it is one thing to make a forceful appeal to experience, it is another to repeat at the beginning of seemingly every answer that Obama has no idea what he is talking about. For one, that claim doesn’t sound credible when Obama is clearly holding his own on policy questions; and plainly disrespecting your opponent is rarely a good idea.

Meanwhile, Obama looked determined to keep a sober tone and did not let himself grow emotional or overly irritated throughout the debate. That was a stark contrast to some of his confrontations with Hillary Clinton, who often managed to get him exasperated. In many ways, this hurts Obama, who sometimes looked more discursive than emphatic - though he has made progress on this since the Democratic debates. But in this particular debate, the contrast with McCain’s impatient responses should play well for Obama.

Obama looked steady, and in times of crisis that might be what voters are looking for. He did not tremble or seem out of his element, addressing some of the doubts undecided voters have.

What makes such a debate so difficult to judge, however, is that other viewers are likely to have widely different reactions to the same visual cues. Take, for instance, the fact that Obama often turned towards McCain but that McCain religiously avoided looking towards Obama. What some might see as McCain disrespecting his opponent, others might see as Obama being overly deferential - and that’s clearly the spin the McCain campaign is looking to put on the debate. (Another dynamic whose impact it is too early to determine is the age factor, as the generational gap was quite apparent throughout the debate. Will it strengthen McCain’s experience appeal or Obama’s “change” argument?)

I am aware that most of these points focus on tonight’s visuals, but that is only because the candidates seemed to neutralize each other substance-wise. But it is still worth taking a closer look at the night’s substantive factors.

The best news for the GOP is that most of the debate was waged on McCain’s turf: one of the most extended back-and-forths concerned Obama’s meeting with foreign leaders without preconditions, and much of the economic discussion was centered on tax cuts - a theme Republicans are always happy to discuss. Yet, Obama never lost ground while on the defensive. Most of his answers were crisp and he had some strong responses to McCain’s attacks (”Wildly liberal? Mostly that’s just me opposing George Bush’s wrongheaded policies.”) He also held his own throughout the foreign policy discussion and effectively pivoted terrorism-related questions to Afghanistan.

Inversely, McCain did better than expected in the opening segment on economic issues. Earmarks were to McCain what Afghanistan was to Obama: no matter the question he was asked, the Arizona Senator delivered a lengthy attack on wasteful spending. Did McCain aides even expect to have this much time to talk about one of McCain’s preferred topics tonight? Sure, earmarks are probably not the first and foremost economic issue on voters’ mind right now, but neither is Afghanistan the first national security issue voters think of when they worry about national security.

Furthermore, while Obama’s answer on tax loopholes was one of his strongest of the night, McCain’s surprising decision to float the possibility of a spending freeze allowed him to briefly look like the more bold and presidential candidate; Obama stayed too vague when Lehrer pressed him to explain how the financial crisis would change his plans, and his answer to McCain’s spending freeze claim could have gone much further in ridiculing McCain’s proposal.

In fact, both candidates seemed to accumulate missed opportunities in their responses. On the one side, McCain could have done much more to distance himself from President Bush.He barely tried to make the change argument tonight, and his listing issues on which he has disagreed with Bush sounded too flippant; considering that all polls show that this is one of McCain’s major problems, he should have done a more careful job in walking viewers through those differences.

McCain often seemed to tie himself to his party label by betting his political success on the continuing popularity of whatever is left of conservative ideology. His prolonged railing against meeting leaders without preconditions and his insistence on talking about tax cuts and spending were arguments that could have resonated more strongly with the electorate in 2000 or 2004, not after eight years of Bush.

On the other hand, Obama should have gone further in tying McCain to his record and to his support for now-unpopular policies. Though Obama did repeatedly attack the conservative economic ideology in the first 30 minutes  - a remarkable feat for a candidate who until a few weeks ago stayed away from most such ideological pronouncements - he did not sustain his attempts to link McCain to Reaganomics, nor did he hit his opponent as hard as he could have on an issue like Iraq.

The first snap polls taken by CBS and CNN as well as the first focus groups (Frantz Luntz and Greenberg) whose results have been made public suggest that Obama gained the most tonight, but it will take a few days for polls to start reflecting what effect - if any - this debate had. There are still two presidential and one vice-presidential debates, and the burden will be on McCain to make them more memorable than tonight’s encoutner.

A short preview, with an hour to go

We have gone five months since the last debate - quite a long stretch to go through for those of us who remember the time early in 2008 where there seemingly were more debates than election nights.

Barack Obama is in the position he was in for his last two debates with Hillary Clinton: He is ahead, and his primary duty is to not commit an unforced error that could jeopardize his lead. At the January 6th debate, Obama looked headed to a decisive victory in New Hampshire but a poor performance and the infamous “you’re likable enough” line contributed to Hillary’s stunning comeback.

That is not to say that Obama can afford staying passive, because that is the surest way for him to end up on the defensive, taking McCain’s blows. And this is another area in which his debates with Hillary have prepared him for tonight: He learned how to deliver hard punches. Throughout 2007, he was criticized for shying away from attacks - but he proved in the South Carolina debate that he could match every one of Clinton’s blow.

And that Obama has an advantage does not mean he does not have to prove himself: Democrats continue to enjoy a strong generic advantage, and the electorate is still yearning to vote for a Democrat - but many independents and conservative Democrats aren’t comfortable with Obama yet. That is part of the reason Obama has been unable to open a decisive lead, and Democrats believe that a strong debate performance could do to Obama what it did to Reagan in 1980 - make voters who want to feel Democratic but unsure about Obama more comfortable about voting for him.

McCain, on the other hand, is in a trickier position because of the simple fact that he is trailing and therefore has more to accomplish. He needs this debate to move numbers, whereas it would suit Obama if the two candidates were to neutralize each other. McCain thus has to be more aggressive - and with aggression comes the risk of overplaying your hand.

It is especially important for McCain to have a strong night since this is the foreign policy debate - the topic he is supposed to be strongest in. Jim Lehrer will surely ask questions about the economy given the financial crisis, and that will already take over some of the time McCain would rather spend talking about the surge, Iran and pursuing Bin Laden to the gates of hell. It is incumbent on McCain to show voters why he would be a more effective commander-in-chief while attacking Obama enough to destabilize the Democrat and prevent him from correcting voters’ fears that he would be a weak one.

But the beauty of a debate, of course, is that it is impossible to predict what might happen - or even what the questions will be. How much time will Jim Lehrer spend discussing the bailout? Will he spend more time asking about on the surge, or more time asking about the initial decision to go to war?

Even if Obama has a brilliant performance, one deadly one-liner by McCain could make everything I just outlined moot; even if McCain accumulates a forceful and steady answers, one Obama comeback could annihilate all his efforts. Cable news will replay soundbites over and over again, and a few moments are likely to overshadow carefully crafted two minute answers.

And complicating the task for both Obama and McCain is that neither is a strong debater. They are both solid enough, but they have had plenty of low points. Obama looked tired and long-winded in a number of Democratic debates, while McCain only survived the series of encouters between the GOP candidates because his rivals never went after him, even when McCain became the clear front runner. That is what makes McCain and Obama’s debates unpredictable - and fun to follow.

Those of you who were already reading Campaign Diaries in the spring know that I do not blog debates - but check but after for a full analysis.

Questions loom over tonight’s debate (Updated: Debate is on!)

We are hours from the debate’s scheduled start, and the McCain campaign is still silent about its intentions. But for those of you who are unsure what you should plan to do at 9pm ET, it seems fairly certain that there will be some kind of political theater tonight - though whether it is a two-man confrontation or a one-man show needs to be determined.

Obama is heading to Mississippi at 11am, and ABC now reports that there are discussions to transform tonight’s debate into an Obama town hall if McCain does not show up. But would Obama even be allowed to enter the hall? An official from the debate commission told Newsweek that there could be no debate at all if only one candidate were to show up, as that would be an “illegal contribution” to the Obama campaign.

As for McCain, the latest hints were disseminated by Senator Lindsay Graham this morning - and they point towards McCain’s participation. Graham lowered the bar of what could cause McCain to travel to Oxford: “What’s more important than anything is that when we go to Mississippi tonight, both candidates can say that the Congress is working, back in business, that we have an outline or proposal.” An outline is certainly very different from a deal - one can be a general agreement on principle (which seemed to have been reached yesterday afternoon), the other is a detailed plan. This looks like a way for McCain to participate in the debate without looking like a blinked.

Indeed, can McCain afford not to debate? His polls numbers are going south - and if that was not obvious from yesterday’s polling roundup, a fresh batch of surveys out this morning leave no doubt: Obama jumps to a 7% lead in the Diego Hotline tracking and a 5% lead (one of his largest ever) in Rasmussen’s tracking, usually known for his painstakingly small shifts. Two new polls show McCain losing ground in Missouri, a red state his campaign was hoping to have locked in his column by September - something that now seems assured of not taking place.

A trailing candidate needs a debate to get some kind of momentum, and it would be surprising if McCain skips an opportunity to do just that. And as I said last night, it looks like he would have difficulty getting away with it, particularly if Obama holds some kind of public event tonight. If some type of town hall is held featuring Obama and the networks would carry it, the Democrat would have an unbelievable opportunity - and the McCain campaign must know that.

That opens up another interesting question: Did McCain ever actually consider skipping tonight’s meeting, or was this entire stand-off a play his campaign put up to drive up the hype around the debate?

In a sense, McCain has set up an ideal situation for himself: If he goes to Mississippi, he gets to show that he was concerned enough about the country to consider staying in DC and working on a deal and that he ultimately decided that it was too important to talk to the American people to skip the debate. By threatening to not even show up, McCain has created the expectation that tonight’s encounter will benefit Obama and thus stands to gain more out of the always-crucial expectations game.

And by raising the stakes of tonight’s encounter, McCain is hoping that any Obama misstep will be amplified and allow the Republican to make up more ground; sure, McCain could stumble too, but he is the trailing candidate, and he thus has little choice but to go for an all-or-nothing strategy. (And as I said yesterday, this diversion has allowed McCain to get Sarah Palin out of the news just when she became a real liability for the campaign with that Katie Couric interview; today’s Washington Post story that she accepted thousands of dollars worth of gifts while Governor could further damage her reformist credentials.)

Whether McCain actually does get this narrative out of the events of the past 48 hours very much depends on the fate of the bailout plan and how much responsibility he is assigned for last night’s chaos. It also depends on whether he shows up in Mississippi, how many of the questions are devoted to the economy, and how the candidates perform. The next 12 hours will be decisive.

Update: Well, here we go! The debate is on, McCain is heading to Mississippi and a campaign statement announces he ends his “suspension” because “he is optimistic there has been significant progress towards a bipartisan agreement.” That wasn’t at all the benchmark he had set on Wednesday afternoon, which to me suggests that McCain never truly considered not going to the debate - something that is also confirmed by reports that McCain instructed TV stations last night to start rerunning his ads tomorrow (i.e. his campaign had already planned on ending the suspension when it was still trying to keep up the debate about his debate appearance).

So let’s get this straight: McCain suspended his campaign effective yesterday morning; he knew that ads could not be pulled within 24 hours, so they were never really off the air; and he goes to debate without any deal in place. As I argued above - the benefits of a diversion without any of the drawbacks?

On September 11th, campaign stays deceptively civil

Only 48 hours after the campaign descended into the gutter, the tone was deceptively civil today and attacks were replaced by a display of national unity. Nowhere was this temporary cease fire more evident than at Columbia University’s forum tonight, as John McCain seemed to repudiate his own campaign’s tactics - even though there is little doubt that the GOP will be right back at it tomorrow.

McCain insisted that the election should be about issues, despite Rick Davis’ recent statement to the contrary - a statement that previewed the campaign’s remarkably efficient strategy over the past few days of putting Obama on the defensive by focusing the discussion on character. And McCain praised community organizing, denying that speakers at the GOP convention were trying to belittle that profession: “Of course I respect community organizers,” he said. “Of course I support people who serve their community and Sen. Obama’s record there is outstanding.” There is certainly no doubt that Giuliani and Palin’s addresses last week were meant to ridicule Obama for his years as a community organizer.

Of course, and from a strategic point of view, there is little reason for McCain to slow down the pace of attacks his campaign is swirling Obama’s way. In my analysis of McCain’s acceptance speech last Thursday, I wrote that McCain’s presenting himself as a maverick and an anti-Bush would give him a boost, but faulted McCain for not giving his speech the scope to make a lasting impression. My point was that his address lacked the type of statement radical enough that it could have survived an onslaught of Democratic attacks seeking to tie him to President Bush. Well, that has for now not proven a problem, as the McCain campaign has created so many distractions around Obama that Democrats have been wholly incapable of getting their own message out.

The more McCain makes this election about everything Palin, about sexist attacks, about Obama’s stance on sex-education, the more the tone of his acceptance speech will go unchallenged - and the more the image of McCain as an anti-Bush maverick will have time to sink in voters’ minds.

Of course, there is always the risk that McCain becomes associated with negative politics, costing him the feel-good image he carried out of the GOP convention. But Democrats should not take comfort in that possibility. Unless a campaign really crosses the line, negative attacks rarely backfire and they more often than not work. The McCain campaign willingness to alienate the press corps - including people like Joe Klein who are certainly not reflexive Democrats - and repeat assertions even when they have been discredited tells us all we need to know about how worried they are that voters might sour against McCain.

Today’s pause was a welcome break for Obama - and Democrats better hope it turns out to be a useful one as well. His campaign did not seem to find a way to respond to the GOP’s aggressiveness over the past few days, and this temporary calm gives them an opportunity to take a deep breath, stop reacting to whatever new controversy is boiling up and assess a response strategy. It is crucial that Democrats not waste entire news cycle answering Matt Drudge, and that is not always easy to do when controversies pick up left and right and when Sarah Palin is still the topic that dominates most political conversations (especially now that she is giving her first interview).

Tomorrow, the show will start once again, though with Hurricane Ike looking set to strike Houston tomorrow night, the suspension of negative campaigning - and perhaps even of campaigning in general - might still extend to a few more days.

As for tonight, both candidates appeared on stage at Columbia University to speak about national service. The format was obviously reminescent of the Saddleback forum last month, but the roles were in some sense inverted. Both candidates performed well, both were able to showcase their strengths and tout their willingness to put partisanship aside - a topic that is dear to both men. But the audience was more friendly to Obama in his alma mater, just as Saddleback’s audience was McCain’s.

And just as last month’s forum was first and foremost an opportunity for McCain to rally the previously somewhat tepid social conservative base, tonight was first and foremost an opportunity for Obama to showcase his patriotism and his commitment to protecting the country. Polls show that these are some of Obama’s weak points, and what better way to address that than a solemn forum that allows Obama to look presidential and answer mostly softball questions on how he will bring the country together and call upon Americans to serve?

Update: Well, that didn’t take long. More about this ad (which simply cuts quotes out of context) tomorrow, but it is actually running (it has been seen in Colorado) and it looks like it might have been on the air on Thursday despite both campaigns saying they would observe a truce on 9/11.

The Saddleback forum: Obama does well, but this was McCain’s audience - and McCain’s night

In their first appearance on the same stage since Barack Obama wrapped up the Democratic nomination, the two presidential candidates participated in a forum hosted by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Church. Shown live on the cable news shows and watched by thousands on the church’s premises, the forum was devoted to religious issues and an opportunity for both candidates to display their faith in back-to-back interviews.

It is difficult to assess this type of event without knowing exactly who is watching (evangelicals or a broader public?) and what angle the media will use when covering the forum. But what we do know is that the first event that can be used to truly compare the two candidates was held in a Church and devoted to their faith and approach to social issues - and that fact alone tells us a lot about the strength of the evangelical community. Much has been made of the decline of the Religious Right over the past couple of years, but both Obama and McCain clearly feel that value voters could be as key to this election as they were in 2008.

One reason both candidates appeared at this forum is that it presented an obvious opportunity for both of them. Unlike 2004, when President Bush was embraced the Religious Right, John McCain has not been an obvious candidate for social conservatives to rally around - leading some Democrats to speculate they had the potential to appeal to a significant proportion of the evangelical population to at least drive down the intensity of the community’s support for the GOP.

For Barack Obama, tonight’s forum was an opportunity to showcase his faith and justify his pro-choice views (the big obstacle for Democrats to make any inroads with evangelicals) - not to mention that it cannot hurt Obama to talk about his Christian beliefs given the continuing success of the false rumors about his religion. Obama did well tonight, offering personal responses, discussing his faith and showing his familiarity with the Bible by quoting Matthew 25.

In this religious crowd, Obama scored points by defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman - though he did follow that up by endorsing civil unions and opposing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And his long answer on abortion did not receive a very positive reception either. At times, Obama seemed hesitant, taking a few seconds to answer and struggling for words - a bit more rusty than he should look at the debates, perhaps because he had just gotten back from vacation.

But while the crowd gave Obama a strong reception, they were clearly McCain’s audience - a good sign for the Republican’s effort to win the enthusiastic support of social conservatives. Given that the Religious Right has to seriously be disappointed in McCain before any door opens for Obama, this forum was first and foremost an opportunity for the Republican to rally a constituency with whom he shares a lot policy-wise. Much of the social conservatives’ distrust has come from McCain’s dislike for talking about abortion and gay rights - but tonight’s forum was a golden opportunity. On stage with no one else but a pastor, invited to talk about nothing but social issues for an hour, McCain was bound to satisfy the audience.

He is, after all, religious enough to declare “I am saved and forgiven.” And he is a Republican: undoubtedly pro-life, anti-gay marriage, pro-vouchers, facing no need to nuance his support for faith-based initiatives, capable of muddying issues like stem cell research and civil unions and supportive of the Supreme Court Justices most liked by conservatives. All of this, of course, made his answers to some of Warren’s questions more straight-forward and more in line with what evangelicals were waiting for. McCain delivered a solid performance that should reassure many social conservatives.

And while McCain might not like to voluntarily bring up social issues on the trail, he clearly loves nothing more than bringing up his years as a POW in Vietnam. Asked about his faith and about the most gut-wrenching decision he has made in his life, McCain brought up two stories that those of us who have been following the campaign for months have heard many times (and seen in ads in New Hampshire) - his interaction with a Vietnamese soldier who drew a cross on the ground and his refusal to be freed early. But for viewers who have not heard McCain tell those stories, both anecdotes sounded like moving and deeply personal answers.

McCain had a potentially dangerous moment (if Democrats get those negative ads together), when he put the threshold of “rich” at “$5 million.” That comment will certainly not help his attempts to portray Obama as the elitist candidate of the race, particularly given the increasing focus on his wife’s fortune and their multiple houses. But a good moment came when he was asked about his biggest moral failure and he voluntarily brought up the failure of his first marriage, thus pretty much taking the issue out of the rest of the conversation though Democrats were hoping it would fit more prominently.

It is interesting, finally, that McCain’s answers often sounded less religious than Obama’s. McCain described his faith by referring to his courage while Obama quoted Scripture; when asked if evil existed and how they would deal with it, McCain’s answer was entirely about Al Qaeda and the terrorist threat, whereas Obama’s was more general - and could be applied in a more religious context. In particular, McCain often presented his commitment to public service as deriving from the same source as his commitment to his faith. He repeated his call to serve a cause greater than yourself, using that as the reason he was running for public office and confirming that his slogan “Country First” will be the central argument of his general election campaign.

Update: As a comment points out, it has now been revealed that John McCain was not in the building in the first half of Obama’s interview, meaning that Warren’s statement that McCain was in “a cone of silence” and would not know the questions being asked of Obama was not true. (To be fair to McCain, it’s not his fault that Warren decided to ask the same questions twice without McCain being in that famous “cone of silence.” How could Warren not have known that McCain was still far away from the church?) A second controversy now concerns McCain’s “cross in the dirt” story.

Update #2: In case we need more proof that the POW card will be used at every possible opportunity, here’s the McCain campaign’s response to news that he was not in a cone of silence: “The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous.”

Philadelphia debate, follow-up: Gaining some perspective

On ABC yesterday, the debate moderators clearly took the low road. Not only did they aim tough question after tough question to Barack Obama, but the type of issues they raised (Ayers, the flag pin, Wright’s patriotism) had no place in a presidential debate. Disguising the questions under the clock of electability was clearly hypocritical and disgraceful. I said all of this in my original debate analysis.

Yet, given the extent of the anti-ABC protests, I believe it is important to regain some perspective. Obama might have received an unfair treatment, but the debate certainly did not reach the level of outrageousness many people are describing today, not enough to call it the “worst debate” in years, to herald this as the illustration of the high odds Obama is facing and to circulate tasteless YouTube videos announcing the death of Stephanopoulous.

The outrage that is being leveled at the ABC debate is fully justifiable — but only if we reserve the same exact outrage to the moderation of other equally absurd debates we have seen this cycle (particularly those moderated by Tim Russert). My argument here is not that yesterday’s debates were legitimate because Obama has to go through some sort of vetting process, but rather that it is absurd to isolate this last debate as particularly nasty when this is an opportunity to blame the way debates are being conducted these days, hurting both candidates.

For instance, my account of the Feb. 26th Ohio debate is very similar to the one I wrote yesterday; only the roles are reversed. That day, Tim Russert and Brian Williams grilled Clinton despite the fact that Obama was a week away from clinching the nod. Russert’s “Medvedev” trap was reserved to Clinton; the “technical” mix-ups of wrong videos were being shown also happened to hurt Clinton; and Brian Williams giving Obama free reign to respond to Clinton (”How were her comments about you unfair?”) was strikingly similar to the way in which Stephanopoulous repeatedly turn to Clinton to ask her to make her case against Obama yesterday. And has everyone forgotten the truly absurd trap Russert laid for Clinton at the Dartmouth debate in September?

The Clinton campaign had been complaining for nearly a year that their candidate was receiving a disproportionate share of the tough questions — and they were doing so justifiably. Front-runners receive the roughest treatment, but that does not justify disproportionately one-sided and uncommonly nasty questioning, with no substantive issues was addressed in the first 45 minutes.

The Philadelphia debate was gotcha politics. But then again so was the Ohio debate.

In Raleigh today, Obama addressed yesterday’s debate and Clinton’s behavior:

I will tell you it does not get more fun than these debates. They are inspiring debates. I think last night we set a new record because it took us 45 minutes before we even started talking about a single issue that matters to the American people…

Now, I don’t blame Washington for this because that’s just how Washington is. They like stirring up controversies and getting us to play gotcha games and getting us to attack each other. And I’ve got to say Sen. Clinton looked in her element. She was taking every opportunity to, you know, get a dig in there…. That’s all right, that’s her right, that’s her right to kind of twist the knife a little bit….

Look, I understand though, because that’s the textbook Washington campaign, because that’s the politics that’s been taught to be played, that’s the lesson that she had heard when the Republicans were doing the same things to her back in the 1990s.

This response is strikingly similar to that the Clinton campaign trumpeted after the debates in which Hillary was harassed by all sides; “the boys” after after her, the campaign claimed, blaming the media’s bias in Obama’s favor. Today, Obama is doing exactly the same thing: Questioning the moderation by presenting it as an example of the type of politics he is trying to fight.

This is not to say that Clinton and Obama’s criticisms are not legitimate and that they are merely spinning. In fact, I believe they are both very much legitimate, and that too many debates this cycle were poorly handled and moderated. But it is important to keep some perspective. No, yesterday’s debate was not an example of the establishment fighting Obama — but of the media seeking to create the most entertaining narrative on the back of the democratic process.

Yesterday’s debate was also an example of the caricature of Democrats the media relays. Even beyond the first 45 minutes, candidates were asked about issues which the Right eagerly promotes to fracture Democrats — gun control, affirmative action, patriotism, … In fact, the closest parallel to yesterday’s debate might be the GOP anger over the YouTube debate in which CNN selected caricaturally Republican questions.

Philadelphia debate: Gotcha questionning leads Obama to stumble

The last time the Democratic field debated in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton was at the height of her dominance, enjoying great coverage, strong numbers and an inevitability aura. That debate, however, was the start of her slow decline as her rivals took shot after shot against the front-runner, leaving her badly wounded on the issue of immigration (read that debate’s recap here). Tonight, it was Obama’s turn to be under the spotlight: The Illinois Senator was subjected to a series of tough questions the likes of which he had not faced since the beginning of the campaign. Clearly unprepared to answer some of the questions and shocked at the moderators’ persistence, Obama offered unusually weak responses.

In short, this was one of Obama’s worst debate performances. Whether it will hurt him or whether it will trigger a backlash, however, is another question.

The ABC moderators took the low road tonight, spending the first 50 minutes of the debate rehashing gotcha questions and controversies. Even worse, they did so by throwing most of these ugly questions in Obama’s direction; Clinton had relatively few tough personal questions to field. Many Clinton supporters will say that this is only fair after all the debates in which she was at the center of the attention. You might remember the last debate before Ohio, held as Obama seemed on the verge of clinching the Democratic nod; in what was one of the worst moderations of the cycle, Brian Williams and Tim Russert did their best to prove Clinton’s allegation that the media was stacked against her.

Yet, the issue today was not as much how many questions were directed at each candidate but which questions the moderators sought to catch Obama on. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulous brought out a lot of the material that the Clinton campaign would love to bring up in its own effort to show that Obama is not an electable candidate; aware that some of the issues they were bringing up were not necessarily appropriate, Gibson and Stephanopoulous framed many of their questions under the electability cloak: How will you defend yourself against these charges when they are raised in the general?

We should have expected a significant portion of the debate to be devoted to bitter-gate (as it did). But I had forgotten that, since the last debate was held on February 26th, a number of issues that came up since then and that have been long since addressed by the campaigns would come back today — starting, of course, with Reverend Wright. But after a brief interlude in which Hillary Clinton was asked to address her flawed account of her Bosnia landing, it was back to Obama with two questions that had yet to make their way into a debate.

The first was asked by a female voter in a video clip (as apparently neither moderator wanted to take it upon themselves to ask the question, as if there were not the ones choosing the topics). “Do you believe in the American flag?” she asked Obama, adding that this was not meant as an attack on his patriotism… Obama was asked to justify why he does not wear a flag pin. The second question was asked by Stephanopoulous himself who brought up… William Ayers, the rehabilitated member of the Weather Underground with which Obama has some vague and tenuous relationship (as Clinton was glad to point out, they served on the same board…). This also probably means that there will be a wave of stories on Ayers in coming days, just as Rezko’s first incursion in a debate in a January led to his entrance in mainstream media coverage.

Even the questions on Wright were more brutal than Obama could have expected, for what can a question like “do you think reverend Wright likes America as much as you do” possibly mean? This had to be the Clinton campaign’s dream line of questioning — and they had to be hoping that superdelegates were watching. Again and again, Clinton made the case that she was more prepared to fight a general election; my baggage has already been rummaged through, she proclaimed, in what she was hoping would be a clear contrast to the vetting Obama was going through.

The questions might have been unfair and too exclusively directed against the Illinois Senator, but Obama should still have been much better in answering them. For one, he looked uncommonly tired, lacking energy and motivation; he was visibly struggling his way through answers, even when answering questions on Wright, a topic which he presumably knew was coming. Obama defended himself on all accounts by denouncing this sort of gotcha questions as “manufactured issues” that “distract” voters from real problems. And he clearly was frustrated enough to be asked about Ayers and the flag pin that his stump speech denunciation of the “old politics” was not as efficient as usual. Obama also attempted some improvised defenses that could have come out better; whatever the merits of the comparison and from a purely political standpoint, he should probably have avoided comparing Ayers to Senator Coburn.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, was all too eager to push him underwater, bringing up further elements and refusing Obama’s defenses. She brought up Hamas and Farrakhan, adding, “This is a legitimate area, as everything is when we run for office.” One of her most aggressive moments came during her addressing the Wright controversy, as she used one of the conservatives’ favorite line of attack against Obama’s race/class speech, one that Republicans are sure to use in November: “You get to choose your pastor, you don’t get to choose your family.” She also accused Obama of offering different “variations” of his defense on Wright. Yet, Clinton was able to not appear as negative as she could have otherwise; the moderators were bringing up all by themselves issues she herself would not have dared to approach first.

Obama was very visibly on the defensive for 45 minutes — and that is never a good place to be. This is not to say that Obama didn’t have some good responses to the moderators and to Clinton. Defending himself on bittergate, for instance, he brought up Hillary’s 1992 declaration that she did not want to stay at home baking cookies. But he did not use this to attack her for elitism but rather to defend her from it, explaining that he knew then “that’s not who she is, that’s not what she meant.” Thus, Obama brought up a moment that Clinton would rather forget while giving the impression of taking the high road. His counter to Clinton’s charge on Ayers (he reminded her that her husband had pardoned two members of the Weather Underground) was also effective.

Yet, it is hard for any candidate to survive such heavy and sustained fire. At the October Philadelphia debate, Clinton was left standing at the last minutes where she took a decisive hit on the issue of illegal immigration. And Obama had not even come at his best today, making it unavoidable that the debate would reserve some rough patches.

And the debate’s second half did not help Obama make up for the first 45 minutes. Clinton is usually at her best when the conversation turns to the economy and at her worst answering process questions; since she dodged the bullet on the latter today, she entered the former in strong shape, while Obama remained distraught.

It is quite another question, however, to determine what impact the debate will have on the upcoming contests, on superdelegates and on the general election. The dominant debate story throughout this cycle’s debates (with the notable exception of the first Philadelphia debate) has been that the candidate coming under the heaviest fire benefits from voters revolting against what they perceive as a fundamental unfairness. This happened quite famously in the New Hampshire debate when John Edwards and Obama tag-teamed Clinton, leading to women rallying around the New York Senator. It happened again two weeks later in South Carolina, where Edwards and Clinton became temporary allies against Obama in what was perhaps the nastiest debate of the cycle; a few days later, the black vote had rallied around Obama who carried the primary by a huge margin. Finally, it happened at the Ohio debate, in which Clinton took much more hits than Obama but the moderators’ stubborn dedication to “get” her might have helped her at a time she was trying to prove that the media was biased against her.

So which past debate will tonight’s showdown resemble the most? Will it trigger a backlash in favor of the candidate who was on the defensive, just as it did in NH, SC and OH? Or was it a replay of the previous Philadelphia debate, with reversed roles but the same narrative — a front-runner is harassed and stumbles durably? A good case could be made for both scenarios: The questions were more one-sided than usual, yes, but Obama also looked much weaker than usual.

Of course, which of these two parallels is the most accurate will determine the answer to an even more important question: Will this be the last debate of this primary season?

Update: Well, it did not take long for entire articles to be written about Ayers, such as this one in the New York Times. It indeed looks like this will be a replay of Rezko in late January.

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