The Republican base and big donors alike had been pleading with the McCain campaign to let their candidate come out swinging in Wednesday night’s presidential debate, the last of three in this campaign.
The reaction of a group of core Republican voters in blue state Maryland indicates that Sen. John McCain did not disappoint.
These McCain-Palin supporters gathered at Growler’s, a popular watering hole in Gaithersberg, Md., to watch the debate live on a giant TV screen with surround sound. Not even the finger food could distract the crowd of more than 60 supporters from the political smack down taking place in front of their eyes.
After the candidates sparred for nearly 35 minutes on the economy, the mood of the crowd changed audibly when the presidential contenders started to discuss foreign trade.
McCain chided Sen. Barack Obama for his misunderstanding of a free-trade agreement with Colombia, which Obama opposed. McCain said the trade deal is bringing jobs and business to America.
“So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, just doesn’t get it,” McCain said.
The rest of his explanation was drowned out by cheers from a pent-up audience, just waiting for the GOP nominee to take off the gloves.
“Free trade with Colombia is just something that’s a no-brainer,” McCain said.
Obama gave a meandering response about labor rights, which McCain supporters felt their candidate batted out of the park.
“My opponent doesn’t want a free-trade agreement with our best ally in the region, but wants to sit down at the table without preconditions” with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, McCain said.
Then he compared Obama with Herbert Hoover, who as president between 1929 and 1933, presided over the beginning of the Great Depression because, just as Obama, he “didn’t get” the economic crisis America was facing, McCain said.
The room erupted into hoots and hollers over that line.
The overwhelming sentiment among these Republicans in a blue state, many of whom did not support McCain in the primary, was that the Arizona senator finally had taken off the gloves.
They were thrilled when McCain called Obama “Senator Government” for his big-government position on healthcare.
And when Obama raised an obscure court case in a convoluted explanation of why he had voted present in the Illinois state Senate on a bill that authorized killing live-born children, McCain scored a home run.
“That’s a trial lawyer’s dream,” McCain said.
After it was over, these members of the Republican base were enthusiastic, unlike they were after the previous two presidential debates.
“John McCain was on his game tonight,” said Mykal Harris, chairman of the Republican Party Central Committee in Prince George’s County, the most affluent county with a majority of blacks in America.
“This was McCain the fighter pilot, the maverick,” he told Newsmax. “This was his A-game, and I think he wiped the floor with [Obama] tonight. This is what everybody’s been looking for.”
Janice Connolly, 90, who has been active for years with the Reserve Officers Association as well as with the Republican Party, felt that McCain “hit Senator Obama where it hurts. Thank goodness we have a viable candidate,” she said.
Lee Annis, history professor at Montgomery College, said he thought it was “a layup for John McCain, and the most decisive of all the debates thus far.”
Annis wrote a definitive biography of Sen. Howard Baker, “Conciliator in an Age of Crisis,” in 1995, that was reissued in paperback last year with praise from the Baker’s family.
Republican congressional candidate Peter James, 53, said, “I was a little worried in the beginning.”
“Mr. McCain came back at the end of it, but neither one of them really addressed the core problem with our monetary system,” said James, who was backed by former presidential candidate Ron Paul at a rally in College Park last week. “We’re looking at possibly another couple of decades of misery, without someone really addressing the problem.”
Sam Penner, a longtime Republican in overwhelmingly liberal Montgomery County, said he thought McCain had won a “slam-dunk” victory over Obama. “But I bet you all the liberal newspapers are going to say it was a tie.”
“I thought McCain did great, even better than he did the first night,” said Charles Stansfeld, 62, of Rockville, Md.
Mark Uncapher, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee, said he thought the debate focused clearly on the important issues. “John McCain did a great job laying out his case for reform,” he said.
Stella Green, 50, another Republican activist, said the surroundings made a clear-headed judgment difficult.
“It’s kind of hard in a room full of cheering people,” she told Newsmax. “But McCain showed a lot of passion, and [moderator] Bob Schieffer allowed more specific questions that allowed McCain to call Obama on a lot of things.”
“If I were an independent out there, I think I would say that McCain is the safer bet,” she said.
Some saw a humorous side to the debate.
“I thought it was bit comical,” said Alexander Zepos, 31, a partner and the executive chef at Growler’s, which catered the debate party. “I thought McCain was pretty funny.”
“Personally, I think McCain is funny. I think that’s good to have in a president. We’ll see what the country decides,” Zepos said.
Most of these same die-hard Republicans gathered for a similar moment two years ago, when Michael Steele — then the highest-ranking black elected official in America — was running for the U.S. Senate against liberal Democrat Ben Cardin.
Steele, who was the Republican lieutenant governor of Maryland, was defeated in 2006 by eight points. Today, he heads GOPAC, a Republican fundraising and lobbying group.
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