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Final Thoughts on the First Presidential Debate

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As the dust settles and the spin diminishes, the verdict is clear: while pundits called the first presidential debate a tie, voters thought Barack Obama won.

The initial CBS and CNN spot polls called it for Obama, as did the later Bloomberg/LA Times and USA Today/Gallup polls. Most viewers felt Obama won the economy section of the debate, while McCain prevailed in the foreign Policy segment. Significantly, most felt Obama looked Presidential. The Bloomberg poll observed: "Voters said Obama seemed more presidential by a 46 percent to 33 percent margin. Among those uncertain about their vote -- those who are either undecided or declaring they may change preference -- Obama was more than 2-to-1 ahead of McCain on this question."

Before the debate, political observers felt this was McCain's opportunity to best Obama and narrow the Illinois Senator's lead in the polls. The debate topic, foreign policy/national security, seemed to play to McCain's strength and experience. Obama advisors hoped he would stay close, at least break even in the debate assessment.

Instead, McCain lost the debate. Most observers attribute this to his icy demeanor: refusing to look at Obama and constantly attacking him. Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne observed: "CNN's survey found that 59 percent of women rated Obama as having done better [in the debate], with just 31 percent saying that of McCain. An Obama adviser who was watching a 'dial group' -- in which viewers turn a device to express their feelings about a debate's every moment -- said that whenever McCain lectured or attacked Obama, the Republican's ratings would drop, and the fall was especially steep among women."

Because of the surprising debate results, few commentators noted McCain's erratic behavior during the ninety-seven-minute contest. He twice noted: "I didn't win Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate" and repeatedly failed to directly answer questions, instead veering off into carefully rehearsed zingers. When asked to defend his healthcare proposal, McCain said: "this is a classic example of walking the walk and talking the talk," and changed the topic to energy: "We had an energy bill before the United States Senate. It was festooned with Christmas tree ornaments. It had all kinds of breaks for the oil companies, I mean, billions of dollars worth. I voted against it; Senator Obama voted for it."

The debate transcript indicates that whenever McCain alleged that Obama had voted against a common sense proposal, "He has voted in the United States Senate to increase taxes on people who make as low as $42,000 a year," Obama called him on it, "That's not true," and McCain then changed the subject.

The problem is not that McCain switched subjects to benefit his own narrative that's a typical political trick but that he did it in a way that, on second reading, was awkward and counter-productive. Consider the end of the debate: Obama noted that his father came to the United States from Kenya "because the notion was that there was no other country on Earth where you could make it if you tried. The ideals and the values of the United States inspired the entire world. I don't think any of us can say that our standing in the world now, the way children around the world look at the United States, is the same." Obama said if he became President he would restore America's world image.

There were several ways McCain might have responded to Obama's strong closing statement. McCain could have denied that America's image has suffered. Or, he could have noted that as a proven warrior he has spent his entire lifetime fighting to defend America's position as "shining light on the hill." At the least, McCain could have contrasted his own values and aspirations.

Instead, McCain butchered what appeared to have been a rehearsed segment on his POW history: "When I came home from prison, I saw our veterans being very badly treated, and it made me sad. And I embarked on an effort to resolve the POW-MIA issue, which we did in a bipartisan fashion... I know how to heal the wounds of war, I know how to deal with our adversaries, and I know how to deal with our friends."

There are several reasons why this response was ineffective. It was factually incorrect: McCain has been accused of obstructing efforts to account for all POW-MIAs and not supporting necessary benefits for veterans. But the most obvious problem is that McCain did not acknowledge Obama's closing remarks or end with a coherent uplifting message. McCain's lack of grace indicated to viewers that he either wasn't listening to what Obama said or didn't think it was important. That was a poor way for McCain to end the debate, particularly when one of his experience arguments is that McCain has "the ability to reach across the aisle and unite Democrats and Republicans."

On the campaign trail, Obama has accused McCain of being erratic and "out of touch." That's the way the Arizona Senator came across on Friday night.


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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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