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Not that you may care what I think, but…

Saturday, Sep 27, 2008

* Both candidates failed miserably on the nation’s financial crisis during last night’s presidential debate.

I thought to myself several times throughout the debate that we were in some fantasy world where giant banks weren’t failing, credit wasn’t drying up at an alarming pace and the government wasn’t planning to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a financial system bailout. It was simply bizarre, and the moderator, though he did try, failed miserably to press this point home with two candidates who obviously wanted to avoid the issue entirely.

* Both candidates also appeared at times to be running against each other for a US Senate seat. McCain did this more than Obama, but both were guilty. Subcommittees? Earmarks ad infinitum? Bills from long ago? What the heck? The presidency is not the Senate.

* Lacking any real “grand slam” lines, tone of voice and body language become the two most dominant things to look for in any televised presidential debate. There were no easily identifiable grand slam lines, so voice tone and body language is what most “average” voters came away with. McCain clearly lost in the short-term for this reason.

By the way, George Ryan had the same problem in his first debate with Glenn Poshard back in 1998. He was grumpy, aggravated and off his game. During the next debate, a morning event sponsored by ABC7, George was smiling all the time and very gracious to his opponent. Ryan’s “new” demeanor caught Poshard completely off guard and Ryan won that debate hands down.

If he’s at all able (and who knows if he is or not), McCain obviously needs to try his best to lighten up next time. Reagan came back from a horrible performance in his first 1984 debate to deliver his line about his opponent’s “youth and inexperience” during the next debate. Grand slam, big debate win, four more years.

And that’s an important lesson to keep in mind here. First debates are almost always overshadowed by subsequent performances. If McCain can alter his rather strange debate demeanor then he may win the next debate on the expectations game alone.

* Making sure you don’t get walloped in the days after the debate is also hugely important. If it can be shown later that a candidate is what his opponent says he is (in this case, that Obama simply doesn’t grasp important foreign policy issues), the candidate whom everyone thought won can lose big points. So, bringing up the Henry Kissinger stuff was a serious mistake for Obama because - whatever the merits of his points - Obama should’ve known that Kissinger would back up his friend McCain after the debate concluded. Major advantage to McCain on this one.

On the other hand, McCain closing with the line about how experience matters won’t go over well at next week’s vice presidential debate - and Gov. Palin’s absence from the postgame shows only drove this point home even more.

* Obama flubbed, but somewhat recovered, after McCain talked about his bracelet from one of the mothers who had lost her son in Iraq and had pleaded with him to not let her son die in vain. Obama, who just isn’t empathetic enough and rarely brings the names of common folks into his discourse, seemed to uncomfortably struggle at first to remember the name of the soldier on his own bracelet. The resulting pivot - that the mother Obama talked to didn’t want any more mothers to go through this experience - was good, however.

But while the majority of those polled may believe that Obama leans more towards their views on economic issues and Iraq, if the candidate doesn’t show that he truly connects with people on their individual everyday problems, the undecided middle may eventually conclude that he’ll just dump them when the going gets rough.

While that bracelet thing was eventually a decent pivot, both candidates have no real clue how to execute pivots on a regular and effective basis. Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were masters of this. Both need to watch tapes of those two guys. After McCain made the point about a federal earmark to study the DNA of bears, Obama could’ve come back with Gov. Palin’s request of a federal earmark to study the DNA of harbor seals. It would’ve been a great comeback line, and set up next week’s veep debate as well. The Obama zinger about Spain’s prime minister and McCain’s attenuated line about Obama’s fake presidential seal didn’t work because nobody in the target audience really understood what was going on.

Sharp pivots - when a candidate takes a big hit, turns it around and throws it right back at his opponent with devastating impact - usually end up being “grand slam” debate moments. Learning to pivot means you’ve learned how to win a debate.

* It was kinda hilarious that cable commentators and major political bloggers went from calling the debate a draw before the snap polls were released, to attempting to explain why Obama won after the polls were made available. It should be funny to see how they react if polls show a different story in the coming days.

I thought McCain had a very strong, empathetic start with his opening remarks that followed Obama’s stiff, talking-points opening. My thinking was that if McCain and Obama continued along those lines, McCain would win the debate in a walk. But it quickly became clear to me as I watched (and I have the text messages to my intern to prove it) that McCain’s entire demeanor radically changed. Angry, impatient, refusing to look Obama in the eye while leaning away from him and staring uncomfortably off to stage right.

At one point, while Obama was saying something serious that McCain disagreed with, I could actually hear McCain scribbling furiously on his note pad. Not a good thing.

Temperament is an all-important aspect of any character debate. And “character” is central to most of those who can’t make up their minds until the very end. They don’t vote for parties, they say, they vote for the person. McCain failed that personality test on a grand scale.

Yet, almost no commentator made mention of McCain’s rather odd behavior until after the first snap poll was released. Either they were too polite to say anything, or too clueless to notice.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

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