The final face-off between Barack Obama and Mad (and I do mean mad!) Johnny has just concluded. The debate took place in Hempstead, New York, and was moderated by Bob Scheiffer.
Honestly, I thought McCain came out strong. He was confident, sharp, and combative. Obama came out cautious, as if he knew he were ahead (which, of course, he is) and didn't want to take any risks. In short, he seemed tentative.
That lasted through the first two questions which dealt with taxes and the budget deficit. But then Scheiffer threw out the hot potato:
"Sen. Obama, your campaign has used words like 'erratic,' 'out of touch,' 'lie,' 'angry,' 'losing his bearings' to describe Sen. McCain.This is where McCain's combativeness became aggressiveness, where his desperation showed itself. He started by bringing up the comments made by Congressman John Lewis, comparing the tactics the McCain campaign has used to the rhetoric of that grand old segregationist, George Wallace. That, of course, was a dodge. It didn't address Scheiffer's question.
Sen. McCain, your commercials have included words like 'disrespectful,' 'dangerous,' 'dishonorable,' 'he lied.' Your running mate said he 'palled around with terrorists.'Are each of you tonight willing to sit at this table and say to each other's face what your campaigns and the people in your campaigns have said about each other?"
But, if you keep dangling bait in front of a hungry bass, eventually it will bite, hook or no hook.
And that's what happened. Obama pointed out that John Lewis is not part of his campaign, and then brought the ugly truth right out in the open, saying:
"...what [Lewis] was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like 'terrorist' and 'kill him,' and that you're running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say 'Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line.'"That, my friends, is "saying it to your face."
McCain responded. He spouted some fake indignation about the "people that come to our rallies," about how he is proud of them, and that the nuts who shouted those things were "fringe peoples." (Here's the problem, John: those "fringe peoples" are your base!)
McCain then tried to regain the initiative by bringing up William Ayers and the ACORN pseudo-controversy. It didn't work. Obama calmly stated the facts on both of these non-issues.
From that point on, McCain's performance degraded. He appeared flustered and impatient, rolling his eyes, sighing loudly, shaking his head angrily.
Obama, on the other hand, seemed to loosen up. He has a gift for eloquence, of course, and he used it to great effect. He remained calm throughout and spoke in even and measured tones.
Regarding policy, in general, Obama advocated public investment in energy policy, education, infrastructure. McCain advocated less government spending, and warned that Obama wants to "spread the wealth around," invoking that age old Republican bogey-man of "class warfare." In short, each man's policies are more or less the typical and traditional solutions that his respective party has been offering for the last century. Here's the difference: the Republicans are now thoroughly discredited.
It is impossible for me to assess the debate objectively, but I think McCain's game fell apart in the long middle period where he tried to tie Obama to peripheral issues (Ayers, ACORN) that don't carry much weight with voters; voters who are watching their retirement accounts vanish, who are worried about deep economic recession if not outright depression, about the costs of health care and education, about global warming.
The tried-and-true Republican playbook of smear and distract isn't working this time around.
Two and a half weeks to go, Johnny... two and a half weeks.