Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Game, Set... Match?

Barack Obama won the debate, and John McCain lost it. And America is getting used to the idea of President Obama.

Obama's victory was the clear verdict in the polls, the focus groups, the pundits--even more clearly than the first debate. The numbers do prove out my suspicion that voters have already made up their minds, but I do think this debate wasn't irrelevant. Obama looked and talked like the President, especially the President we need now. McCain looked and talked like another nightmare.

My first (pleasant) surprise came early, when Obama was the first to jump on corporate greed and today's AIG testimony. Completely took it away from McCain, who harped on the topic in the first debate.

As I foresaw, Obama was very comfortable with the so-called Town Hall format, and performed much better than the aimlessly wandering McCain. Although either the camera placement or the format or the TV director couldn't keep up with the candidates, and visually much of the debate was looking at the backs of heads and people walking out of frame. It was dizzying at times, and I wouldn't be surprised if people tuned out.

Pundits noted that Obama tied McCain to Bush early and often, but he also related all of his answers to people's lives--very important. I expected that, and he did it even better than at the first debate. And get this: when McCain didn't mention the "middle class" once in the first debate, Team Obama made a campaign ad pointing it out. So what did McCain do this time? He didn't say the words "middle class"again---not even once.

Obama was particularly strong on health care (Brokaw threw it up there--is health care a right, a privilege or a responsibility? McCain whiffed with responsibility, Obama homered with health care is a right), on taxes, on the moral imperative to stop genocide but our lack of standing to lead in the world because of Iraq and Bush diplomacy, on the Climate Crisis as the most significant crisis of our time, and on the call to service.

I'm not entirely sure if McCain is on board with his campaign's "racially tinged" negative blather that's been inciting crowds, but he sure looks racist: he suggested that a black questioner probably hadn't ever heard of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae, he pointed to Obama and said "that one," and after the debate, he left Obama's outstretched hand dangling.

The internals of the polls and the questions with the focus groups show that voters are getting more comfortable with Obama, none more dramatically than this focus group, according to Amy Sullivan of TIME: Even more dramatic was the shift in the voters’ personal reactions to the two candidates. Before the debate, McCain had a 48/46 favorability rating; that improved to 56/36 by the end. But that’s about where Obama started the evening—54/36. After an hour and a half, Obama’s favorability numbers were 80/14. As Joe Biden would say, let me repeat that: 80% of the undecided voters had favorable views of Obama and only 14% saw him negatively for a net rating of +66. Not even Bill Clinton got such a warm response in town hall formats."

Nate Silver concluded: " I apologize if I sound like a broken record. But once again, Obama won the debate according to essentially every objective metric. And recall that, even if the debate were a tie, this would not have helped John McCain; he needed a clear win tonight. Instead, he's continued to dig himself into a deeper electoral hole."

That pretty much says it all.

But we can begin to see what's happening in the bigger picture as well as the constructive outcome in this suggestion by E.J. Dionne: " McCain kept highlighting the conservative past with his reverent references to Ronald Reagan. But at the moment, the conservative past is on trial. It represents the era Obama unmistakably wants to end. " We are clearly at the end of something. How fortunate we are that in Obama we have a capable leader with the ideas and ability to take us to the beginning of something new.

By the way, others are observing what I predicted for this debate: that in the town hall format, McCain did not (because he could not) go negative in the same terms as Palin and he have on the stump in the past few days. But this is not the last debate. I fully expect McCain himself to go completely negative in the most strident way next Wednesday in the final debate.

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