You know a campaign realizes it’s in serious trouble and falling behind rapidly when its candidate fares so poorly in a debate that senior aides blame the moderator.
Acknowledging that the night failed to shift public focus on the economy or inflict serious damage on Obama, one of McCain’s key economic advisers, Douglas “John Invented The Blackberry” Holtz-Eakin, accused Tom Brokaw of “hijacking” the debate. This bit of rhetorical huffing was greeted with deserved guffaws of disbelief by the press corps gathered in the spin room: The McCain campaign pushed hard for the town hall format – early on, McCain wanted to do 10 of them with Obama – it wanted Brokaw, NBC’s liaison to the McCain campaign, as moderator and the tight rules Brokaw followed were agreed to by both campaigns months ago.
The town hall format is supposed to be McCain forte. But he was clearly uncomfortable, jumping up from his high chair to march menacingly towards the audience when it was his turn, and his words rambled everywhere in search of an answer.
As his discomfort became palpable, at one point McCain referred dismissively to Obama as "that one" with a flip of his hand – a snide reference close enough to “that darky boy” to make some women in the audience visibly wince. Watching at home, I almost did a spit take when he said it. McCain might as well have said, “Ol’ Black Joe over there …”
Well, Obama already has more than 90% of the African-American vote so I assume McCain figured that offending another five percent of that particular voting bloc won’t make much difference.
Never has the age gap between the two men been as obvious. For example, when McCain was asked how the economic crisis would affect the three top priorities of his administration, he seemed unable to remember what they were and jotted a note before answering.
McCain was left so nonplussed by the experience that he refused to shake Obama’s hand at the end of the debate, exiting the Crewe Center so quickly I thought his Grampers needed changing. Meanwhile, Barack and Michelle hung around shaking hands, taking photos and chatting with the audience for more than 20 minutes.
A National Thumbs-Down
The post-debate snap polls, which provide important insight into how each candidate fared, say that that Obama scored a clear victory in the second debate.
- NBC gathered a group of undecided Pennsylvanians who gave Obama a 60%-40% edge in the debate.
- At CBS, its snap poll gave Obama a 39%-25% edge over McCain.
- Greenberg Quinlan Rosner had a focus group of undecideds leaning to Obama by a healthy margin of 42% to 24%.
- A CNN focus group of undecided voters in Ohio had the margin at an even wider spread: Obama 54% to McCain's 30%.
- In Washington State, SurveyUSA interviewed 741 debate watchers where 54% thought Obama was the "clear winner" compared with McCain's 29%.
Even Fox’s focus group had voters leaning towards Obama, mostly because of his firm statement that health care was a “right of every American.” McCain called it a responsibility, and went into a disjointed, rambling explanation of why that left people in the studio audience with confused looks on their faces as the camera followed McCain around.
Obama had a number of brilliant moments that connected with the audience – live and on television – but what might be looked back on as the moment he won the election came at the very end. The last question was “What don’t you know and how will you learn it?”
This morning, I phone my two McCain campaign contacts. One, who works in a swing state, did not answer her phone and the source at McCain headquarters gave me a sharp, “Not today” before hanging up.
But people on the Obama team are much more talkative.
“It was supposed to be McCain’s night,” I’m told, “and he never got out in front. Not in his style, not in his substance, not in his answers.
“He reminded me of my grandfather in his later years. My Granpa Joe was hanging out in his childhood a lot by then and although he’d answer a question, what he said was connected to what he was asked by only a loose thread.”
Lies, More Lies And Damned Lies
As the evening grew on, McCain ended up falling back on his old habit of lying.
On the economic crisis, McCain said that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were among "the real catalysts, really the match that lit this fire." But data from the Federal Reserve show that the majority of the subprime loans that triggered the crisis weren't issued by Fannie and Freddie, but by private lending institutions.
McCain said Obama and "his cronies and his friends in Washington that went out and made all these risky loans." He was referring to two former heads of Fannie Mae: Franklin Raines and Jim Johnson. The McCain campaign has referred to Raines as an Obama adviser which Raines has denied repeatedly, and everyone from Fox News to FactCheck agree. Johnson briefly headed Obama's vice-presidential vetting team before resigning when some loans he obtained became controversial.
McCain, moreover, has his own ties to the mortgage industry. His campaign manager, Rick Davis, is a co-owner of a lobbying firm that was on a $15,000-a-month retainer from Freddie Mac from 2005 through August.
McCain repeated a claim that Obama's tax plan would raise taxes on small businesses. But some time ago, the non-partisan Factcheck.org project at the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the "statement is simply not true."
On Iraq, McCain repeated his assertion that last year's surge of 30,000 additional U.S. troops has been a success. But that goes well beyond what U.S. officials are saying. A nearly completed top-level intelligence report warns that ethnic and sectarian tensions remain unresolved and could explode in renewed bloodletting.
McCain also said he wouldn't withdraw U.S. forces until they achieved victory in Iraq. Army Gen. David Petraeus has said that he doesn't believe that the war is one in which victory can be declared.
McCain said that U.S. troops had to be withdrawn in humiliation from Somalia in 1993 after a peacekeeping operation to deliver humanitarian aid turned into a peacemaking operation. He failed to mention, however, that he sponsored a Senate resolution demanding an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Somalia after 29 U.S. troops were killed and 170 wounded in the battle that gave rise to the book and movie Blackhawk Down. The resolution failed.
On energy, McCain said drilling offshore for oil was necessary. Experts have said it will take a decade before oil could be pumped out.
All that remains now is to see how the McCain camp tries to recover in the 26 or 27 days until the election. Given its hate-filled stump rhetoric the past four days, my guess is Palin and Friends will return to calling Obama a terrorist lover, a dark man with a dark past (hint hint), someone who can’t be trusted.
But how can the country be expected to trust McCain, a man who twice now came across as the old coot who lives at the far end of the alley and yells at people who walk past his house?
The Progressive Curmudgeon
If you're born in Milwaukee, you are born a Democrat. And so I gravitated naturally to liberal politics, first as journalist and then an activist. I've been writing since I was eight years old and, after working in newsrooms for far too long, I have devoted much of the past decade as an independent investigative journalist. When not writing about politics or George Bush, I scribble out essays on the peculiarites of modern times.
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