Round One a Draw, Two Rematches to Follow
Both seemingly struggled at the outset to illustrate their own plans for the looming credit crisis, but this is to be expected given that they have spent the better part of the last two years on the campaign trail and away from their responsibilities in Washington. An apparent deal between the Bush Administration and Congress was struck early yesterday morning, with the House poised to pass the legislation as early as today, followed tomorrow by the Senate. Both candidates have voiced lukewarm support for a compromise they played little role in precipitating.
Without doubt the state of the economy will play a pivotal role in this election, and we'll continue to watch from afar as the candidates circle the country in search of a narrative than resonates with voters in swing states. Thus far, echoing my post on Friday, such a course has been elusive for McCain and Obama, and the first debate did nothing to quell these concerns, placing an even higher premium on their second and third square offs. The second debate is structured in a town hall format with questions emanating directly from the audience, and the third is more traditional, with a direct focus on the economy and domestic issues. To date, Friday's performance included, the candidates' grade on what CNN calls "Issue #1" is largely incomplete.
Friday's debate centered largely on foreign policy issues, and by my account, McCain offered a more compelling vision of how he would act as commander-in-chief than Obama. This is not to suggest that the junior Illinois senator suffered a dismal performance, for in many ways he exceeded expectations, but he was on the defensive for most of the evening and failed to deliver a knock out punch to his vulnerable opponent. Indeed, outside of their clear differences on Iraq and whether or not the U.S. should engage in face-to-face diplomacy with rogue nations, Obama often seconded McCain's offerings, offering minute qualifiers.
McCain at times lectured Obama for his "naivete," and Obama was clearly knocked off stride at several instances. While McCain kept his cool and smiled even when attacked, Obama appeared angry at moments and often attempted to interrupt his opponent in mid-sentence. Obama's attempts to tie McCain to President Bush opened the door for McCain to highlight their differences over the years. While discussing the Russian-Georgian conflict, however, McCain left Obama's blunder at the time on the table, failing to point out his call for UN Security Council action when Russia holds a spot and veto power.
As a whole, many experts judged the debate a draw, though some, like the Des Moines Register's David Yepsen, agreed with me that McCain was the decisive winner. On the other hand, among viewers who watched the debate, Obama was the apparent winner, although CNN's poll oversampled Democrats. This taken into account, perhaps viewers also scored it a draw. I am also skeptical that Friday's audience was as large as those we will likely see in the ensuing contests given that it landed on a weekend. The final three contests, beginning with the vice presidential debate on Thursday, all land on weeknights. My guess is that committed partisans and politicos tuned in on Friday, and larger numbers of independents and undecided voters will watch in the next two weeks, offering the candidates better chances to change minds.
It may be too early to tell whether or not Friday's performance translates into bump in the polls for either candidate, but Obama is surging according to most recent national surveys. Thursday's match-up between Delaware Senator Joe Biden and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin is laden with intrigue and could stand as the so-called "game changer" that Friday clearly wasn't. Next week's presidential town hall will be equally important, followed by the farewell debate the following Wednesday. With 36 days and counting, each public impression that candidates offer assumes a greater degree of importance. The stakes could not be higher for what is truly "must-see TV."