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McCain's Big Night

Who won more votes?

11:00 AM, Sep 27, 2008 • By DEAN BARNETT
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Far be it from me to differ with the punditocracy's mainstream, but I happen to feel that last night's debate was a pretty big win for John McCain. I'm aware that most observers have called it a draw, agreeing that both men performed rather ably. I'm also aware that the polls show a majority of watchers thought Obama "won." But still, it was a big night for McCain. Or more precisely, it was a bad night for Obama.

Judging these things like a high school debate is a fool's (or CNN's) errand. Who cares who "won" the debate? We're not electing a debater-in-chief. A more probative inquiry is who won more votes. Or to ask a related question, who lost fewer votes.

I agree with the multitudes of analysts who say that both men performed ably. The strength of Obama's performance, especially in the debate's first half, came as something of a surprise. He must have cut his normal quotient of "ums" and "ahs" by at least 50 percent, and he put himself across in a relatively forceful manner. At the other end of the stage, McCain's competence in this kind of forum came as no surprise to people familiar with his skills. (As a Romney supporter during the primaries, McCain's supple mind and command of details constantly provided frustration.)

But again, you don't determine the winner of these things by calculating who most skillfully evaded taking a position on the Paulson Plan. We might as well skip ahead to the real goal which isn't winning a debate but rather winning votes.

Like I said, McCain came across well as he always does at these things. Low end news gatherers who were expecting a doddering old warmonger got a surprise. McCain looked and sounded presidential.

McCain's running attack on Obama did serious damage, especially given the way Obama's behavior played right into the attack's theme. Throughout the evening, McCain said that Obama "didn't understand" things. The message was as subtle as a Howard Dean scream--on one part of the stage you had the old Warhorse who has been around the track; on the other end of the stage, according to McCain, you had a neophyte. McCain was making a frontal assault on Obama's maturity and judgment.

The assault only directly drew blood in a couple of instances. Obama looked silly when he couldn't distinguish between "tactics" and "strategy," and his endless parsing on preconditions and preparations came across as patently disingenuous. But the real damage came with the debate's optics. Having his maturity frontally challenged, Obama by his own creative antics often came across as childish, petulant, and a little odd.

Let us count the ways:

1) Several times during the debate, Obama would smirk and laugh while McCain spoke. The optics of this were just awful. If Obama had wanted to come across as an arrogant jerk, this is the strategy he would have chosen. Frankly, it's rather shocking that Obama repeatedly made such a mistake. Al Gore cost himself the 2000 election with his first debate performance where he derided everything George W. Bush said with a series of sighs and smirks. Oh yeah--the polls and the pundits said Gore "won" that tussle right after it concluded, although history has rendered a different verdict.

Gore's antics were completely unprecedented. Up until that time, every other presidential candidate had managed to comport himself in a reasonably mature fashion while doing a televised debate. And yet in 2004, George W. Bush took the Gore tactics out for a test drive during his first debate with John Kerry, scowling virtually every time Kerry spoke. Bush's lead in the polls quickly evaporated.

The voters expect a certain level of decorum from their candidates. Obama didn't demonstrate that decorum last night. While he debated more effectively than he has in the past, he came across poorly.

2) On a related note, Obama kept referring to McCain as "John" while the older candidate referred to his foe as "Senator." Again, I don't understand the thought process here. Maybe Obama thought he would appear more presidential and less a lightweight by treating his more seasoned opponent in an overly familiar manner. But the difference in the two candidates' approaches grated as the evening wore on.

3) Obama often refers to himself as "we." What's up with that?