By Dick Morris on October 8, 2008

Published in the The New York Post on October 8, 2008

John McCain probably won last night’s debate on points – but he needed a knockout, and he didn’t get it.

His proposal to help homeowners by buying their mortgages was well articulated. He also scored well on entitlements and, as always, emerged ahead on foreign policy.

But Obama dodged and weaved his way out of trouble.

McCain failed to rebut patently absurd claims – like Obama’s claim to favor nuclear power, his “plan” to cut taxes on 95 percent of Americans and his charge that McCain would shower CEOs with new tax breaks.

Incredibly, McCain even let Obama get away with lamenting the high deficit. He needed to say: Let me get this straight. You want to raise spending and give everyone a tax cut and you won’t increase the deficit – where does the money come from? He needed to explain that Obama would hike taxes on practically everyone, that the Democrat’s spending plans require a huge tax increase or a major rise in the deficit.

Watching McCain fail to pin Obama down was like watching Sonny Liston try to catch Mohammed Ali.

He pulled his punches – letting Obama off gently with lines like: “You said you would not raise taxes in a bad economy. Well, it is bad.” He should have made the case that Obama’s tax program would transform a crisis into a catastrophe.

He let opportunity after opportunity slip through his fingers.

McCain scored nicely by tying Obama to Fannie Mae, campaign contributions and all. But he failed to identify adequately with the popular anger at Wall Street and did nothing to reduce his own connection in the public mind with the Bush bailout.

On national security, he did a good job of showing how well-prepared he was, and scored well with his remark that there’s no time for on-the-job training. And his explanation of his Afghan and Pakistan policies was excellent, while Obama’s repetition of his old Iraq argument seemed out of date and rote.

But national security won’t win the election. McCain needed to win on the economy – and he didn’t.

Perhaps his biggest failure was not hanging Bill Ayers around Obama’s neck. By not mentioning the terrorist’s name, he undermines the efforts of his own campaign to make Ayers an issue. By avoiding the topic last night, he seemed to be saying it’s not a real issue.

McCain needed to punch through on two issues, taxes and values: how Obama’s policies will crush the economy, and how Obama’s core beliefs are far outside the mainstream. He landed a lot of blows last night – but Obama managed to brush them off.

McCain entered the debate nine points down in the Gallup and Rasmussen polls. His performance won’t even start to close the gap.

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