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Was a Tie Enough for Follow-the-Leader Obama Tonight?

10:40 PM, Sep 26, 2008 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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In post-debate wrap-up, I'm getting a couple things from most commentators. One, all three networks have mentioned the fact that Obama repeated, "John is right," throughout the debate. The McCain campaign has already released an ad to capitalize.

I noticed several sound bites that stood out, but most commentators say none struck them. In the absence of others, "John is right," will be the one that defines this night, and it will be largely because the campaign competently noticed and packaged it-but quick.

Most commentators say McCain performed well and Obama fairly, but that a virtual tie benefits Obama. However, even liberal commentators conceded that Obama had some problems. McCain got under his skin. Paul Begala said that, during the discussion on Iraq, Obama "sounded like the man of yesterday," like he was "stuck in the past," noting the irony of the fact that Obama's image is about the future.

It seems to me that if Obama's camp and allies are saying all he needed was a tie and he almost got it, it was not a good night for him.

More striking to me was the fact that the economic debate, which should have been Obama's strong suit by a mile, was steered to earmarks, taxes, and spending almost to the exclusion of all else by John McCain. Obama and Lehrer followed McCain's lead by talking on his turf for at least 10 minutes. If Obama can't direct a debate with John McCain toward his self-interest, how could we possibly expect him to stand up for America's interests across the table from Ahmadinejad (which is where he wants to be sitting)? He's far too apt to follow the leader. He may respond eloquently when he does, but he's not directing the conversation.

I think McCain missed an opportunity to explain why he was in Washington and exactly what he was fighting for, but the direction the conversation went certainly didn't hurt him.

Last question. The conventional wisdom is that the guy who's ahead in polls need only tie to "win" a debate. Obama committed no major flubs tonight (with the possible exception of 'Jim, I have a bracelet, too," which required that he check the name on the bracelet before he got misty.) But Obama's central vulnerability in this election is on foreign policy. Was a tie enough to assure voters that he's not the risk McCain implies he is, or did he need to pull off a more solid win?

My favorite moment of the night (which admittedly may only appeal to conservatives like myself) was when McCain scolded Obama over his agreement to meet with Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Obama, of course, attempted once again to rewrite his answer, and McCain headed him off at the pass:

"Let me get this straight. We sit down with Ahmadinejad and he says, 'We're gonna wipe Israel off the face of the Earth' and we say, 'No, you're not?' Please."