Obama-McCain debate: jabs, but no knockout

Economic anxiety overshadows Tuesday's matchup; McCain offers plan for Treasury to buy, renegotiate terms of 'bad home loan mortgages.'

Rick Wilking/Reuters
Presidential contenders Barack Obama (l.) and John McCain ended their second debate Tuesday in Nashville, Tenn.

John McCain went into Tuesday night’s debate with Barack Obama with a clear game plan: Go after the Democratic presidential nominee whenever possible, but not too harshly.

For the most part, the Republican nominee carried that out. Even in his opening thank yous, Senator McCain got in a little jab at Senator Obama, saying “it’s good to be with you at a town hall meeting.” The pointed reference to the format brought back memories of McCain’s proposal to hold 10 town hall meetings with Obama around the country, an idea that Obama rejected, to McCain’s frustration.

The town hall format is McCain’s favorite, because it allows him to engage in a back and forth with voters. But the strict time constraints in Tuesday’s event prevented any sort of free-wheeling debate. Ultimately, the two candidates went back and forth without any knockout punches or gaffes, and so there appeared to be no obvious winner.

Insta-polls of uncommitted voters by CNN and CBS both gave the duel to Obama. But even without polls to lean on, it was clear that by the end of the evening the trajectory of the campaign had not changed. So for McCain, now the clear underdog after more than three weeks of devastating economic news that has put his party on the defensive, the debate was in effect a loss.

Going into the debate with an expectation that momentum might change is probably a mistake, says Byron Shafer, political science chair at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“This has become a campaign in which, in some sense, major external events are driving the train,” says Mr. Shafer. “If you say to McCain, ‘Go to that debate and do something outrageously better than Obama so everyone forgets the credit markets seizing up,’ you’re being unreasonable.”

The first half of the debate was dominated by the nation’s economic turmoil, and voter anxiety came through in the questions. Many of the questions came from members of the audience of 80 uncommitted voters; others came via e-mail from voters outside of Nashville, where the debate was held.

In response to the first question, which asked what kind of bailout the candidates would propose for older citizens and workers who have lost their incomes, both candidates seized the opportunity to show they feel voters’ pain.

“I think everybody knows now we are in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression,” Obama replied. “And a lot of you I think are worried about your jobs, your pensions, your retirement accounts, your ability to send your child or your grandchild to college.”

Then Obama went after McCain, calling the current financial straits “a final verdict on the failed economic policies of the last eight years, strongly promoted by President Bush and supported by Senator McCain….”

McCain began his response with his own “I feel your pain” rhetoric: “You go to the heart of America's worries tonight,” he said, complimenting the audience member for his question, as McCain did for just about every question he took. “Americans are angry, they're upset, and they're a little fearful. It's our job to fix the problem.”

McCain then put forth some proposals – including a new one that immediately had conservatives scratching their heads. He spoke of energy independence, the need to keep taxes low, the need to cut government spending, and then the new proposal: “I would order the secretary of the Treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes.”

McCain said that would allow people to make payments and stay in their homes. He acknowledged that such a plan would be expensive, but added that “until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy.”

McCain criticized Obama for backing special projects known as earmarks, such as a $3 million projector for a planetarium in Chicago. He also tied Obama to the subprime mortgage crisis, via his “cronies” and friends.

Perhaps McCain’s sharpest attack on Obama came in his discussion of energy legislation that “was loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies.”

“You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one,” he said, pointing dismissively at Obama. This kind of impersonal dig was unusual in a presidential debate, especially for one between two senators, who normally address one another with particular decorum.

Still, for all the jabs during the evening – and Obama gave as good as he got – Obama seemed almost preternaturally calm. It may be that he knew his assignment was to make no mistakes, and that by maintaining a cool composure he would be less likely to say something he would regret.

“In terms of style, Obama seemed more relaxed tonight than in the last debate,” says Jennifer Reem, a communication expert at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “He did a good job of not condescending to the audience. He addressed the entire audience, making sure to turn around and face each portion of the audience during his answers.”

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