Published in the The New York Post on September 26, 2008
In a TV debate between a tall man and a short one, the tall guy usually wins – we haven’t had a short president since Harry Truman. Young man vs. older one? The younger usually wins.
Handsome, charismatic candidate against a man who’s neither? Well, you get the point: John McCain will have three strikes against him as he enters the first presidential debate tonight (assuming it goes ahead).
But McCain will have two things going for him. The subject will be on national security, his strong suit, and he’ll be coming off a bounce driven by his dramatic intervention this week in the financial-rescue package.
Zogby’s Interactive poll showed McCain gaining five points on Wednesday, going from a three-point deficit to a two-point lead. (Other polls aren’t one-night samples because they’re conducted over the phone and, so, take longer to field.)
McCain speaks in commands and sound bites. He abhors nuance as something to cut through. Barack Obama, a law-school professor, loves to explore subtle distinctions and prides himself on keeping his grounding and cool at all times. Without a teleprompter, Obama has a hard time rising above complexity and seems allergic to declarative sentences.
Obama has a John F. Kennedy-like distrust of passion, while McCain is more like Bobby Kennedy – embracing passion and using it to empower him.
All of this is to McCain’s advantage. But it will be hard to overcome the electorate’s innate tendency to want a Democrat in the White House. And the contrast between an old, short man and a young, dynamic, charismatic hero will be more than evident on TV.
The late, great media consultant Bob Squier used to analogize candidates’ first meeting in debate to grade-schoolers’ first day in the schoolyard. Just as kids rapidly decide on a pecking order based on who can beat up whom, so the candidates take one another’s measure and get elated or depressed based on their conclusions. That psychological hangover lasts for the entire campaign.
It was clear that Hillary Clinton had Obama’s measure in the Democratic debates. His policy answers were fumbling and elusive, while hers’ were wonkish and detailed. The contrast always worked in Hillary’s favor. Doubt it? Then why did Obama turn down additional debates when Hillary suggested them as the race entered its last phases? Winners don’t turn down debates.
Of course, McCain lost most of his debates in the GOP primaries. He lacked Mike Huckabee’s wit, Mitt Romney’s aggressiveness, Rudy Giuliani’s clarity. He was inclined to mumble, and his weak, soft voice too often failed to command attention.
Debates mattered little in the primaries, in part because there were so many. In the general election, however, they’ll count for everything. In 2000, Al Gore led George Bush by 10 points after the conventions, but his shoddy performance in the debates gave Bush the lead.
(John Kerry won the first debate in 2004, putting him back in that race – but Bush gained strength with each match and ultimately won.)
If McCain can use his momentum and foreign-policy expertise to defeat Obama in this first contest, the Democrat may find it hard to recover. The concerns about his lack of strength and absence of a killer instinct will resurface, feeding doubts that he’s all celebrity, no substance. Others will take his penchant for complexity and see a Hamlet figure paralyzed by his own analysis.
But the force is with Obama: It’s a Democratic year. McCain must keep pulling rabbits out of hats to keep in contention. All Obama has to do is persuade voters to do what they’re inclined to do anyway – vote Democrat.