Saturday 27 September 2008

McCain snark hands Obama slight edge

There was no great dramatic moment, certainly no knockout blow, in a close fought and reasonably substantive opening Presidential candidate's debate.

John McCain began shakily on the economic crisis, where Obama was better. However, the Democrat made a tactical error in allowing the discussion to remain so focused on a traditional 'cut government spending' debate about earmarks for so long. McCain's detailed view of what should happen on the financial bailout remains rather opaque, yet was largely untested.

On foreign policy, I felt that Obama had the better of the exchanges on Afghanistan, and probably Iraq too. McCain's strongest debating passage was on Georgia and Russia, where he projected his experience most effectively. However, his claim that he saw only the letters 'KGB' behind Vladimir Putin's eyes sat slightly oddly with, in more or less the next sentence, his assertion that he had no interest whatsoever in any new cold war. On negotiations with Iran, what Henry Kissinger has said is somewhere in between what both candidates claimed: he has been for direct talks, without preconditions, but preferably at Secretary of State level.

The most important question of the night was whether uncommitted voters who have not followed the race closely would think Obama as qualified to be President. McCain's strategy was to consistently say "what Senator Obama doesn't understand". This came across as snarky. When he finally decided to say outright in his closing remarks that Barack Obama was not qualified to be President, he muffed the line, with Obama barely even needing to retort.

By contrast, Obama was consistently gracious. The McCain camp have issued an instant campaign video drawing on the times he acknowledged points of common ground. But this was a foreign policy debate and that is a major part of Obama's claim to bipartisanship, which is supposed to be part of McCain's "reform" credential too.

So Obama passed the 'ready to lead' test comfortably, being Presidential, knowledgeable, fairly robust in his views and carrying off his somewhat Kennedyesque persona in a substantive way. Voters worried about the experience gap will probably have felt that Obama held his own on his opponent's specialist subject. And Obama was considerably better at connecting foreign policy issues back to their domestic impact, which is an important part of the framing of the final month.

The economy is back at centre stage, McCain has had an erratic week, and the Palin pick looks somewhat less smart as time goes on.

So a drawn debate would have been to Obama's advantage. And he may just have done a little better than that. The "snark" factor may well explain why each of the instant polls of debate viewers had Barack Obama ahead on the night, though not dramatically so.

If John McCain was seeking to get a major boost from the debates, this may have been his best opportunity. And if his response as the underdog is to become more aggressive in the next two encounters, it may well do him more harm than good.

Overall, last night's debate didn't change the Presidential race very much.

So this remains the Democrats race to lose on November 4th.

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