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September 29, 2008

People Were Watching This Time, and Saw the Real McCain


If you’d only listened to, and not watched, about a 20-minute segment of Friday night’s presidential debate, you’d have thought that John McCain came across as not just having a lot more experience but also having the temperament to be the president.


That thin slice of time, which was perhaps McCain’s best opportunity to revive his candidacy after a week of flops, came complete with the sound of Richard Nixon, croaking with renewed life from 1960.


It was that tight campaign season when the power of television was first truly realized. Nixon and John F. Kennedy debated before an audience that hadn’t quite fully switched from the radio to television. People who listened to the debates thought Nixon won. People who watched saw Nixon sweaty and shifty and looking every bit the used car salesman he turned out to be.


And so it went this year. McCain, while discussing the first two answers on Iraq, sounded like the more experienced man, wizened by years of involvement with national security. It was when you watched him that things took on a different perspective.


Gone was the statesmen. In its place, after you got past the tie that appeared to be chosen for its ability to induce seizures in members of the audience, was left a man with pasty white skin, and teeth yellowed with age that turned each attempted condescending smile into a pained grimace. He shrank in his suit, and recoiled from Barack Obama as if he were the sun, McCain were the undead and the Democrat’s presence was causing his skin to blister.


Much of this can be attributed to the apparent contempt with which McCain held the proceedings. He refused to look Obama in the face, even as his opponent fulfilled the moderator’s wishes that the two talk face-to-face. During a question on economic policy, in fact, he told Jim Lehrer that he could hear the answers just fine when Obama wasn’t talking to him.


Perhaps some of this can also be attributed to McCain’s string of campaign blunders, starting with allowing his grossly under-qualified vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin to actually do interviews. In an Internet microsecond, her rambling gaffes while answering Katie Couric’s questions destroyed the ticket’s appeal to both women and the Republican Party’s base.


That revolt had some of its roots in McCain’s serious gaffe about the chairman of the Security and Exchange Commission. McCain called for accountability, saying that commission chairman Christopher Cox should go. Little did McCain know that Cox is a good friend of conservative columnist George Will, who promptly spent two weeks assailing McCain’s judgment.


By the time the Palin interview had erased the GOP’s momentum coming out of the party convention, the financial markets declined rapidly – just days after McCain had called the foundations of the nation’s economy sound. Then, with polling data showing disastrous results for McCain-Palin, McCain suspended his campaign (mostly by canceling an appearance on the David Letterman show) and eventually wandered down to Washington D.C. just in time to torpedo a bipartisan bailout package for Wall Street.


The debate was never going to be a game changer; a complete shift in momentum. At best, it offered McCain a chance to put together a credible drive and kick a field goal to let people know that he was going to be in the game until the end. The pundit class, wrong on everything so far this year, thought he’d done just that.


Unfortunately for McCain, while politics and football have much in common, what they don’t share is a method for determining who wins. In this case, the people whose opinions mattered most were undecided, swing voters. According to post-debate polls and focus groups, McCain’s chief problem is that many of them watched the entire thing, rather than just catching a portion of it on their radios.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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