Last night's debate was easily the best on all levels: substantive, revealing, and dramatic. Rather than rehashing the same old arguments, moderator Bob Schieffer asked pointed and difficult questions that brought the candidates into new territory. And as in the last two debates, Senator Barack Obama remained collected and presidential while Senator John McCain looked like he could barely contain his disdain.
In every debate, McCain has started strong and Obama has ended strong, so the first half hour again went to McCain. He attacked Obama repeatedly on issues and connected to people through Joe the Plumber. But easily his best line of the night was, "I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago." It was strongly stated and addressed Obama's main attack . But why did it take so long for McCain to say it? Throughout the debates, McCain has seemed to forget that he no longer needs to worry about the Republican base. Sarah Palin has taken care of that. It's the independents he needs, and those are the ones who want to know how he differs from President Bush.
While it's true McCain was on offense during the first half hour, I found his strategy less effective than in the first debate. Back then, McCain dominated the discussion so that it consisted only of topics he wanted, making Obama look weak for defending himself. But this time around, Obama has learned how to play defense. He refused to let McCain's attacks define the debate, either repudiating them strongly (like using Fox News as a source on his side) or moving on to his topics of choice. McCain may have been more commanding, but he was hardly dominating Obama the way he could have.
Any lead McCain may have had early on evaporated with the negative campaigning question. Even though McCain's advertisements are widely seen as shamelessly negative, McCain played the victim card. He immediately brought up John Lewis, getting teary at the "hurtful" comments made about him. Even more so because Lewis is not part of Obama's campaign, McCain looked like a little kid crying about how life's not fair. It got worse for McCain when he voluntarily brought up Bill Ayers. Not only did Obama get to clear the Ayers issue once and for all, but he made McCain look petty for making it "the centerpiece" of his campaign. By calling out for a return to the issues, Obama looked like he was rising above McCain's petty sniping. If he had just avoided saying that McCain's ads are 100% negative (obviously false), this section would have been all good for him.
Another new and contentious topic was abortion. In general, Obama had been playing it safe, willing to sit on his lead. He wisely avoided the opportunity to bash Sarah Palin, letting her flaws speak for themselves. Yet while McCain answered the question safely, Obama was the one who turned a question about Supreme Court justices into a discussion on abortion. This was a risky move for Obama, as abortion is one of the subjects best able to divide voters up. Yet his answer was thoughtful enough to please anyone remotely pro-choice. He also drew McCain out into taking a full pro-life stance, that could potentially turn pro-choice undecideds against him. It's hard to know whether Obama's risk paid off, but it certainly drew major distinctions between the two candidates. This section then led to a final half hour in which Obama dominated, once again providing far better answers on health care and education. By ending in his comfort zone, the final impression left by Obama to voters was stronger.
While the issues discussed showed a lot about the candidates, their biggest difference was in demeanor. While some considered Obama flat, to me he seemed presidential. His cool, calm delivery stood in great contrast to the increasing emotion showed by McCain. McCain's emotion did sometimes work to his advantage, like in his line on President Bush. But as the debate continued, he seemed angrier and angrier. Reaction shots made him appear disdainful of Obama and like he was seething with rage. He brought to mind the sighs of Al Gore with his frustration. The visibility of his anger made Obama look all the more calm under pressure.
As much as we may focus on the issues, a lot of swing voters don't care about details. But they want someone who looks and acts like a president. And these people are likely to ask themselves who they want representing our country: Someone who is always cool under pressure, or someone whose rage boils visibly at the slightest provocation. McCain needed a decisive victory to turn the momentum around for his lagging campaign. Instead, he looked desperate as he flailed around for any attack that would stick. Two and a half weeks may be a long time in politics, and certainly something could happen to change the election around. But there's no question that these debates did nothing to improve McCain's chances.