Regular readers surely know that I was less than whole-hearted in my satisfaction with Senator Obama's performance in Friday night's debate--at the time. Initial reactions included frustration over Obama's decision not to confront McCain about his erratic behavior ahead of time, disappointment that McCain was being allowed to frame himself as a spending-cutter, and confusion over what seemed to be a casual approach by Obama to vetting the outrages of the current Administration in the Middle East. Then, almost immediately afterward, I watched the network wrap-ups, the late local news, followed by Nightline, and on channel after channel all I could find were clips of Obama looking smooth, Presidential, and totally in charge of the conversation.
In Yesterday's column I noted that Obama had significantly out-performed my own assessment, with respect to the polling data that was at that time available, and allowed that persuadable voters probably employ a completely different rubric for determining who gave the superior performance. Obama might, I theorized, have looked uncomfortable and shrill by playing the matter the way I might have, in his shoes. Undecided women might have been turned off by too forceful a thrust-and-parry from the champion of hope. Certainly, in the minds of anyone forced by the event's bizarre Friday-night time slot to watch in de facto silence from a crowded restaurant, the night was a clear and uncontested victory for Team Blue.
Many of these daily articles are the fruits of concepts I start thinking about as much as a day or two in advance, and today's column was scheduled to be a missive suggesting that Obama won by being stylistically superior, while McCain would've won if people were still relegated to deriving their impressions from the radio. I'd planned to riff on the Kennedy/Nixon debate in 1960, weaving a thread about the incumbent party seeking a third consecutive term in power, vs. a far more telegenic and potentially unproven young upstart. The grisled Cold Warrior would show up ready to win on the issues, while the whipper-snapper would arrive prepared to look Presidential for the TV-cameras. (And by the way, if you haven't read three such columns already, you're behind on your political-junkieism.)
But a funny thing happened along the way to that column: I've had another day of competing inputs and another night to sleep on the matter, and I am prepared to conclude that Mr. McCain didn't win the debate on points, either.
Without expecting in advance that I would come to such a conclusion (which is different from calling it unbiased), I woke up this morning to the realization that I can now clearly recall only three specific moments from the entire proceeding: Mr. McCain being unable to say the name of the Iranian President, Mr. Obama calling attention to McCain's profoundly unsettling behavior toward the government of Spain, and the whole, "John, you act as if the Iraq war started in 2007," exchange, which at the time frustrated me because I felt Mr. Obama was leaving himself open to the flip-flop charge on the question of the Surge, but which now seems, at the very least, to have been a "standing eight-count" for McCain in an already wobbly performance, fraught with combative body language and a disrespectful lack of eye-contact.
The polls continue to see the event as a clear victory for Obama, too: Gallup scores the event 46-34 for Obama--about as lop-sided a victory for the good guys as that ragingly slanted polling firm could ever be expected to grudgingly concede about anything. True to form, the Republicans are running ads that lift tiny snippets of the proceedings out of context as a way of suggesting that their guy came out on top--but the thrust of the argument this time (that Obama isn't ready) doesn't seem to be resonating, precisely because it was Mr. McCain whose pre-debate behavior was so inexplicable and rash. Tracking polls that don't even reflect any post-debate opinions are showing Mr. Obama at either +5 (Hotline and Gallup), or +6, (Rasmussen and Research-2000), and nobody in punditry expects these numbers to close over the next few days.
Even without the effects of the debate, Mr. McCain and his party are staring up from a far deeper well than was the case even seventy-two hours ago: McCain himself is losing Pennsylvania, tied in Missouri and North Carolina, and dangerously behind in Virginia. He must win all four of these states to be President (as well as hold Ohio, Florida, Montana, West Virginia, and Nevada), and if the election were held today he would probably lose in at least three of them. There is late word that Senate Minority Leader Mitch ("The Bitch") McConnell is suddenly tied with his relatively little-known Democratic challenger in his bid for reelection to the Senate from Kentucky. The Media General News Service reported yesterday that Libby Dole, already trending behind in her race for reelection against Kay Hagen, has visited the state she is supposed to represent only thirty-three days over the span of two years. The generic congressional ballot once again favors Democrats by double-digits.
McCain now desperately needs what he was trying to accomplish with his mid-week campaign suspension, with ever-narrower likelihoods of success: He needs to shake up the dynamic of the race, in such a way so as not to come across to the shakeup-weary electorate as desperate and gimmicky (the way the last effort did).
One thing left to try is easing his running-mate off the ticket--an option that was once only popular with firebrand leftists like myself, but which was recently called for by Kathleen Parker of the National Review:
No one hates saying that more than I do. Like so many women, I’ve been pulling for Palin, wishing her the best, hoping she will perform brilliantly. I’ve also noticed that I watch her interviews with the held breath of an anxious parent, my finger poised over the mute button in case it gets too painful. Unfortunately, it often does. My cringe reflex is exhausted.
When Couric pointed to polls showing that the financial crisis had boosted Obama’s numbers, Palin blustered wordily: “I’m not looking at poll numbers. What I think Americans at the end of the day are going to be able to go back and look at track records and see who’s more apt to be talking about solutions and wishing for and hoping for solutions for some opportunity to change, and who’s actually done it?”
Meanwhile Jack Cafferty, a generally middle-of-the-road commentator for CNN, also came out earlier this weekend with a call for Palin to step down, blasting the idea that she might someday become President as something that, "if it doesn't scare the hell out of you, it should." It now seems there are a great-many Republicans and independents who would applaud a decision to replace Governor Palin--but for the small problem that her obvious pool of replacements would either refuse the offer or infuriate the Republican base.
So what does that leave? Well, it leaves dirty tricks: Barack Obama is a Muslim, Barack Obama is an extremist black-Christian with ties to Reverand Wright (neat that he can be both, isn't it?), Barack Obama and Paris Hilton are having a bastard child. Your guess is as good as mine, but at this point you can be relatively confident that this is McCain's next play. It's all he has left. The Governors of Missouri, Ohio, Colorado, and Virginia are all Democrats. Stealing isn't going to be enough this time. At the moment, dirty tricks are the only thing standing between John McCain and a concession speech.
And it will fall to the rest of us to be ready with our "contact us" links to the media, to respond swiftly and forcefully to every dirty attack. The Obama campaign will do its part (far better than John Kerry ever did), but the rest of us will have to press the media to remain vigilant. My guess is that they will, precisely because they themselves are already fatigued with the McCain/Schmidt antics-generator, and will let almost none of their forthcoming accusations stand on their own, unchallenged. Which makes the job ahead for John McCain all the tougher. Indeed at the moment, at least, pulling out a victory would for John McCain be perhaps the toughest in modern political history. It could still happen, but today--unequivocally--it wouldn't.
("The Key Grip")