There is little question that John McCain “won” the first debate Friday night. Perhaps he lost on points (arguments) and style (how could he beat Mr. Smooth?), but McCain “won” over the audience, the only victory that counts.
Here’s what I saw and heard:
1. Any question that McCain is too old to run for office has been put to rest. He was sharp, on point and looked good -- good enough, that is.
2. If the debate was held before the elite faculties of Harvard and Columbia, schools Obama attended, he would have won hands down. But this debate was held before the American public.
3. Obama was too smooth, too smart. Remember the “W. Factor.” Bush lost all the debates with John Kerry on style and substance. But Bush came across as more likeable. Ditto McCain.
4. Obama has a subtle, condescending speaking style. His hand gestures of constant pointing fingers, frequently raising his fingers to eye level, jabbing constantly, make’s one feel he’s lecturing us. Yes, John Kennedy jabbed, but only occasionally.
5. After the debate I heard on a radio caller say they listened to the debate on radio. Obama sounded like a professor. Bingo. Americans don’t elect professors president.
6. The debate opened on the economy. McCain should have scored much bigger points. He didn’t. He claimed Obama wanted to raise taxes. He should have rattled off specifics of Obama’s tax plan, including: removing the FICA tax cap, doubling the capital gains tax, increasing dividend taxes, letting the Bush tax cuts expire giving everyone an automatic tax increase, raising gasoline taxes, etc.
7. Obama also made some serious tactical mistakes. Twice in the debate he repeated the allegations of others, first saying he was “liberal” and later saying he was “naive.” Repeating labels is a no-no.
8. McCain came across as authentic. This elusive quality is difficult to manufacture, and a key reason Obama can’t compete on this score. McCain smartly pointed out how Obama became a born-again earmark and pork fighter -- after he started running for president.
9. Obama came across as slick trying to making himself sound more moderate than his record demonstrates. He says he doesn’t really want to spend $800 billion on new programs; he really isn’t the most liberal member of the Senate; he doesn’t really want to meet with dictators like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; and so on.
10. McCain demonstrated he doesn’t simply talk a good talk, but has walked the walk. He has been a longtime enemy of earmarks. And he has been a fighter who has crossed the partisan divide time and again. Obama simply has no such record.
11. McCain’s strength was foreign policy. It showed. Obama did seem “naïve.” McCain won the “don’t meet with rogue leaders without preconditions” argument. Obama’s answers sounded like he was flip-flopping on his original statement.
12. On Iran, again one of the most contentious issues, McCain won because his comments grasped the gravity of the crisis.
13. Where McCain lost was on the Iraq war and the surge. Yes, McCain has been right on the surge and Obama has been wrong. But McCain came across as heavily invested in the idea of the war (creating a democracy in Iraq) and unwilling to flexibly respond to reality. Make no mistake about it: this is an unpopular war that is costing us a trillion dollars so far. On CNN I watched the audience meter as McCain talked about the war and its “success.” The meter showed Independent voters clearly tracking in “negative” territory, clearly in line with Democrats.
In sum, McCain had the most to lose from this debate. Obama is known as the great public speaker.
McCain did more than hold his own.
And most importantly he demonstrated several things that will resonate with voters.
First, he is ready on day one to be Commander in Chief.
Second, he can be trusted. His word is good.
Third, he is one of us.
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