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The Third Time’s Not the Charm for John McCain

BlackAmericaWeb.com, News Analysis, Sean Yoes Posted: Oct 16, 2008

In the third and final presidential debate of the 2008 general election, John McCain threw more punches in search of the elusive moment that would change the dynamics of this presidential race that have him sinking in the polls and Barack Obama on the rise.

But, the consensus of most who watched is that none of those punches landed cleanly on Obama, and, most importantly, not many of them connected with the American people.

McCain, losing to his Democratic rival in the most recent national polls from nine to 14 points, went on offense immediately at the debate at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York, attacking Obama throughout the evening on issues ranging from the Illinois Senator’s tax policy to former 60’s radical-turned-college professor Bill Ayers.

Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who moderated the debate on U.S. domestic policy, seemed to give the candidates more leeway to operate, which may have help spark snappier exchanges than the previous presidential debate in Nashville.

But, Obama once again projected what now seems to be a familiar image to the American people: Presidential, prepared, calm, cool and collected.

“That calm, casual, Zen-like confidence is what the American people want during these times,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, host of “Hardball.”

And a significant majority of Americans who watched the debate believe that Obama’s cool trumped McCain’s fire.

CNN’s poll conducted moments after the debate ended declared Obama the winner 58 percent to 31 percent for McCain.

Most in the poll, taken by Democrats, Republicans and Independents who watched the debate, believe Obama stated his case more clearly than McCain, 66 percent to 25 percent.

In what seems to have been a growing trend over the course of the debates, Obama scored better than McCain with debate watchers in the area of who is the stronger leader, 56 percent to 39 percent. This was a category where McCain had previously dominated Obama, but it seems like the Democrat has emerged from the three presidential debates looking more presidential in the eyes of the American people.

Those who participated in the CNN poll also overwhelmingly believed that McCain attacked Obama during their final debate 80 percent to seven percent, which did not seem to play well with many.

“The looks, disdain and contempt that McCain displayed were palpable,” said David Gergen, a veteran Republican strategist and CNN commentator.

Donna Lee, an income maintenance specialist for the Baltimore City Department of Social Services, agreed with Gergen’s assessment.

“I thought Obama was eloquent as usual. He was agreeably disagreeing, as opposed to John McCain, who was nastily disagreeing,” Lee said. “I thought he was an angry, grumpy, disgruntled old man.”

The results of a CBS News poll conducted immediately after the debate yielded results similar to the CNN poll. Six-hundred thirty-eight undecided voters who watched the Hofstra debate declared Obama the winner 53 percent to 22 percent, with 25 percent declaring the contest a draw.

According to the CBS poll, Obama scored better with debate watchers on the issue of healthcare (61 percent to 27 percent), the economy (65 percent to 48 percent) and who shared their values (64 to 55 percent).

Perhaps the high point of the evening for McCain came when he declared during one exchange with Obama, “Sen. Obama, I am not President Bush,” a response of Obama’s unrelenting attempt to weld McCain to the unpopular president and his policies. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy in this country.”

It may have been the most memorable line of the evening, and, up until that point, it seemed like McCain thrived in attack mode while Obama appeared to be back on his heels somewhat.

But, when the theme switched to Ayers, the tide seemed to shift in the Democrat’s favor.

“Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s campaign over the last three weeks. So let’s get the record straight,” Obama said. “Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a school reform board … Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House.”

Tiffany Smith, a credit analyst from Chicago, believed McCain’s performance at Hofstra was -- to coin a term promulgated by the Obama campaign -- erratic.

“I think that Barack did an excellent job,” Smith said. “Barack connected to the people. He’s already got a plan in place. McCain is just rattled. I don’t think he knows what he’s going to do. It’s off, everything’s off.”

Towards the end of the debate, Obama, maybe reminiscent of Muhammad Ali in some of his greatest fights, seemed to close strong, rallying at the end on the issues of healthcare and education. By most accounts, his performance gave Obama a clean sweep of all three presidential debates, leaving McCain and his supporters frustrated.

“[McCain] needed to break through to the American people,” said Mike Murphy, an MSNBC commentator who served as McCain’s senior strategist during his 2000 presidential bid. “I’m not sure he did. I think tone hurt him.”

When CNN’s Gergen was asked essentially what McCain should do now, the Republican strategist answered, “It beats the hell out of me. He threw everything he had at him, and it did not work.”

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