Published in the The New York Post on September 27, 2008
There were two debates last night: the first half on the economy, the second half on foreign policy. Barack Obama won the first half; John McCain won the second.
But it was not a draw – because the economy is the most important issue right now.
Plus, a great many people watched only the first half of the debate. Unlike a horse race, it is the opening, not the finish, that is the most important.
Obama entered the debate ahead in the polls, and scored at least a draw – so he’s likely still ahead.
McCain has lost a golden opportunity, and Obama has survived the first debate. So, in the ultimate test of who comes out of this debate ahead, Obama won.
Obama’s performance was glib, direct, specific and substantive. He showed a familiarity with the issues and a capacity for direct answers that has eluded him previously. He has raised his game since the primaries.
McCain’s performance put the age issue aside: He was energetic, alert and specific; he did better as the debate progressed.
He scored especially well in mocking Obama’s failures on foreign policy and projected how naive and unprepared he is on key foreign-policy issues.
But the economy is front and center these days. And on the economy, McCain lost.
He entered the debate after “suspending” his campaign and announcing that he would not attend the debate. The nation wondered why: Was it a stunt, or the start of a carefully thought-out plan to go to the core of this emergency and emerge with a victory and a deal?
By attending the debate, McCain had an obligation to explain himself and to show what he has achieved in suspending his campaign. He struck out totally in this key area.
And he sounded just like Obama in calling for a bipartisan approach. He did far too little to differentiate his position from Obama’s. He did nothing to hammer home the fact that he’s not going to use tax money but rather insurance and loans to finance the rescue package.
We’re left wondering why McCain acted as he did – and suspecting him of just being impulsive, desperate and quirky.
So the taller, younger, better-looking, more articulate man won last night. Obama showed a level of concern for the average American that McCain – who undoubtedly feels that concern – failed to project.
McCain, for his part, did nothing to differentiate himself from Obama on the rescue. And, while he was effective in speaking about reductions in spending, McCain failed to project a concern for “Main Street.”
Nor did he do nearly enough to pin the “big taxer” label on Obama. The Democrat did a far better job of attacking the Republican tax cuts for what he calls the “rich.”
Stylistically, McCain talked to moderator Jim Lehrer while Obama talked into the camera. So we viewers watched McCain debate and Obama speak directly to us. The stylistic difference left us with a sense that Obama is the more focused and compelling candidate.
McCain scored points by pinning the naive label on Obama and warning about the danger of his policies, but that impression was counteracted by the seeming knowledge and seriousness of Obama’s approach. He didn’t look or sound like a naif.