Obama-McCain Debate: High Stakes
The first presidential debate will take place Friday night. David Broder believes the stakes are very high.
McCain, after enjoying a brief boost from the Republican convention and the unveiling of Sarah Palin, has fallen back into his pre-convention position, lagging slightly behind. Obama still is unable to lock down 270 electoral votes because he is falling well short of the lead that Democrats enjoy generically over the Republican opposition this year.
Obama is known for his eloquence, while McCain often struggles even when given a decent script to read. That creates an expectation that the Democrat ought to dominate when the two men are directly compared.
McCain began his revival last year with a strong performance in a Republican debate in New Hampshire. Throughout the spring, he was usually at least the second-best man on the stage, outdone by the folksy and humorous Mike Huckabee but clearly more comfortable and assertive than Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani and the others.
Other than by Romney, McCain was rarely directly challenged in the way that Obama will test him; the other Republicans paid tribute to his character and treated him with kid gloves. So his struggles to maintain his composure and avoid personal attacks on Romney suggest a potential vulnerability. When Obama bluntly questions McCain’s positions, the Arizona senator may have difficulty staying cool.
On the other hand, Obama did not win the Democratic nomination by dominating the debates. In the early ones, when the stage was full, he lacked the verbal or physical tools to stand out from the crowd. More often than not, it was Hillary Clinton or John Edwards who made the strongest impression on the cameras and the audience. And when Clinton and Obama met one on one, she won most of the confrontations and the subsequent primaries.
The problem with this scoring is that journalists, and elites in general, apply a different system than used by the general public. For example, even though I was a supporter, I thought George W. Bush was clobbered by Al Gore in the debates; the people disagreed. While perhaps the perceptions were colored post hoc by the famous “Saturday Night Live” parodies, most people judge candidates on personality rather than substance. Elites, by contrast, score based on wonkish command of details and crispness of delivery.
Friday’s debate will be on national security, which McCain has sold as his strong suit. While McCain will be graded on a curve on delivery, with Obama’s expectations higher in that regard, the reverse will be true on substance. So long as Obama comes across as competent and likable, he’s fine. McCain is the underdog here and, as the old boxing adage goes, he’s going to need a knockout to win; a tie goes to the champ.