EDITORIAL: No Home Runs In First Debate
Neither candidate knocked it out of the park during Friday's first presidential debate. But John McCain needed a home run more than Barack Obama did.
That, plus other factors such as an unscientific CNN flash poll in which debate watchers gave Obama a 51-38 percent edge over McCain (59-31 among women), suggests that Game 1 of the series goes narrowly to the Democrat. But there was no defining moment of the kind that would let either man claim an undisputed triumph, a la John Kennedy over Richard Nixon in 1960 or Lloyd Bentsen over the hapless Dan Quayle in the 1988 vice-presidential set-to.
At some threshold level, both men got what they needed out of the debate. Obama demonstrated that he has the gravitas and command of the issues needed to appear presidential. McCain got in some zingers, kept his well-known temper under control, and managed not to make one of his bloopers, such as saying 10 days earlier that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong" at a time when Wall Street was melting down.
Strengths and Weaknesses
McCain's main challenge, indeed, was and is to put some air between himself and the failures of the Bush administration without renouncing his Republicanism altogether. He managed not to fall off that tightrope on Friday -- which is something.
The reasons that McCain needed more than just an adequate performance were at least twofold: (1) He's falling behind Obama in the polls, having lost much of his Sarah Palin bounce; and (2) He was coming off a disastrous week in which he suspended his campaign without really suspending it, pulled out of the debate and then pulled back into it, abruptly flew to Washington to save the Wall Street bailout but instead messed it up, and generally behaved as erratically and desperately as a fish flopping around on a riverbank.
Debate viewers might have expected Obama to make a little hay out of all that, such as saying that he was relieved not to be debating an empty lectern, but he refrained. Obama's main shortcoming in the debate, in fact, was in letting McCain appear to get the edge in the forcefulness department.
Next: the Veeps
Though Obama didn't look as detached and professorial as he sometimes did during the primary campaign, he did display a lack of willingness to go for the jugular when he had an opportunity. At too many points, he started off his reply by saying, "John's right about that," or "I agree with John on that," when he didn't have to. He was trying to display a kind of intellectual generosity, but it came off looking a bit wimpy.
McCain, for his part, sounded like a condescending old man with his ineffective charges that Obama "just doesn't understand" this or that. And he needs to lose that Deputy Dawg snicker with which he accompanies his attempts at humor, which fall painfully flat.
Although the first 40 minutes of the debate were devoted to the financial bailout, the main subject of the night was foreign policy -- supposedly McCain's strong suit. He may face a greater challenge next time when the topic turns to domestic issues, where Obama is more at home.
But the most decisive debate of all may come Thursday, when Sarah Palin -- and indirectly McCain's judgment in picking her as his running mate -- will be under public scrutiny as she goes up against Joe Biden. That one promises more fireworks.
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