After a rough two weeks, Republican John McCain entered Friday night's first debate looking for something that would change the dynamic...
After a rough two weeks, Republican John McCain entered Friday night’s first debate looking for something that would change the dynamic of his race against Democrat Barack Obama.
He’s still looking.
The debate did not qualify as a game-changing moment for McCain, who has struggled to find his footing since news of the financial crisis broke, transforming the contest in an instant.
How and where he might create such a moment is hard to see. One possibility might be to oppose the final bailout package, the whole idea of which is extremely unpopular among large blocs of voters. But he appeared to rule that out Friday night.
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Even though McCain was on the offensive for much of the debate — and received high marks from some analysts for his command of national security — overnight polls scored Obama the winner, 51 percent to 38 percent in a CNN poll, 39 to 24 in a CBS poll of undecided voters.
Whatever the value of such surveys, they make it highly unlikely that Sept. 26 was the night the Republican nominee started to turn the election in his favor. McCain trails by an average of more than 4 points in the national polls.
In addition, the numbers suggest Obama made progress in getting some key undecided voters — who are inclined to vote Democratic but feel uncomfortable with him personally — to envision him as their president.
“We think last night we not only passed the commander-in-chief test, we flew by it,” David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, said Saturday in a conference call.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a top McCain adviser, expressed a different view: “There was only one person on the stage who was a president. He was John McCain.”
On Saturday, both campaigns moved swiftly to anticipate the next debate — between vice-presidential candidates Sarah Palin, the Republican, and Democrat Joseph Biden on Thursday — and to seize on what they perceived as the debate-related openings created by the other side.
The Obama camp put out a new commercial titled “Zero,” which is the number of times McCain used the term “middle-class” in taking about the economy.
Obama made the same point in a speech to a rally in Greensboro, N.C. “The truth is, through 90 minutes of debating, John McCain had a lot to say about me, but he had nothing to say about you,” the Democratic nominee told the crowd. “He didn’t even say the words ‘middle class.’ Didn’t say the words ‘working people.’
“You see, I think Senator McCain just doesn’t get it.”
In other settings, McCain has talked often about the economic squeeze being felt by the middle class.
In a speech delivered by satellite Friday night to a sportsmen’s group, McCain noted a word Obama hadn’t used.
“Even as American troops are fighting on two fronts, Barack Obama couldn’t bring himself to use the word ‘victory’ even once,” McCain said. “… When Americans look at a candidate, they can tell the difference between mere self-confidence and an abiding confidence in our country.”
Also coming from the McCain side Saturday — the candidate was in Washington, D.C., working the phones on the financial-rescue package — was a new television commercial focusing on a vote that Obama cast against funding the troops in Iraq.
The ad shows clips from 2007 in which Biden, a Democratic senator from Delaware, criticized those who voted against the funding. As Obama’s picture appears on the screen, an announcer says: “Playing politics. Risking lives. Not ready to lead.”
Obama said during the debate that he cast that vote because the bill in question did not include any timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq. He voted in favor of funding the troops on numerous other occasions.
McCain also voted against a 2007 emergency spending bill that would have funded the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he opposed it because it contained a timetable for withdrawal of troops from Iraq. At McCain’s urging, President Bush vetoed the bill.
Aside from the substance of the debate, Obama’s aides feel their man won on style.
In overnight polls and in various focus groups, most debate viewers said they viewed Obama as cool and steady, which is how his aides characterize his behavior during the financial crisis. Early in the crisis, Obama laid out a set of principles that he said should guide any federal action, and he has stuck to them.
Contrast that to McCain, who had an edgier quality in the debate, rarely looking at his opponent or otherwise acknowledging his presence.
That and McCain’s various reactions to the financial crisis over the past two weeks — saying the economic fundamentals were strong, calling for a study commission, advocating the firing of the chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission, proposing a new government agency, suspending his campaign, going to D.C., and resuming his campaign without a rescue agreement — emboldened two Obama aides to use the word “erratic” Saturday in describing him.
This is a not-so-subtle attempt by the Obama campaign to suggest that McCain might not be temperamentally suited to be president.
McCain’s aides said that’s absurd. Said spokesman Tucker Bounds: “John McCain spent his week fighting for American taxpayers, he’s spent his career fighting to change Washington, and he spent last night proving that a record of change and reform is more powerful than just talking about it.”
He now has 37 days to do something about the political trends that are working against him.