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Posted by on Oct 15, 2008 in Media, Politics | 2 comments

Obama McCain Debate: McCain Improves But CBS Poll Finds Uncommitted Voters Declare Obama Big Victor

For Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain you might say this about the third and final debate he had with Democratic Sen. Barack Obama:

The third time was the charm. For the first half hour at least.

But uncommitted voters by a large margin feel McCain lost the debate, according to a just-released CBS poll:

As in the previous debates, CBS News and Knowledge Networks have conducted a nationally representative poll of uncommitted voters to get their immediate reaction to tonight’s presidential debate.

In the first presidential debate, second presidential debate and vice presidential debate, more uncommitted voters said the Democratic candidate was the victor.

And it looks like tonight’s results will, by a wide margin, make it a clean sweep. These numbers are preliminary, and will change slightly as more respondents are added, but here’s where things stand with most of the results in:

Fifty-three percent of the uncommitted voters surveyed identified Democratic nominee Barack Obama as the winner of tonight’s debate. Twenty-two percent said Republican rival John McCain won. Twenty-four percent saw the debate as a draw.

UPDATE: A full text of the debate is HERE.

Pundits had predicted a fiery debate that was McCain’s last chance at a “game changer” where he could convince Americans of his leadership qualifies on the economy, put Obama on the defensive and win over crucial independent voters and moderates who have been moving to Obama recently faster than approved bailout money to Wall Street.

McCain fared well in the first 30 minutes — but once the best moderator in any of the debates so far, CBS veteran newsman Bob Schieffer, turned the question to negative advertising and McCain himself raised the Ayers “Obama associations” issue, the Arizona Senator’s comeback seemed to fizzle and Obama started coming on strong.

McCain’s problem: for much of the debate he seemed to be still trying to win over the GOP base and Republicans. And in debate III he sounded far more conservative than in any of his previous national debates. What he needed to do: to win over uncommitted voters and independent voters who are concerned with issues, not character politics.

Perhaps the most telling tidbit came via the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder:

Four members of [Republican pollster] Frank Luntz’s 23-person focus group switched to Obama. None switched to McCain. [Fox News] Brit Hume did not seem happy to learn that.

Some quick impressions from this registered independent voter:

OBAMA: He was weakest in the first 30 minutes and was on the defensive at times. But he came on stronger once McCain raised the Ayers issue. It’s as if raising the issue helped Obama regain his stride — and McCain lose his. Obama’s big smile when McCain attacked him came across as phony baloney. Number one positive: throughout the debate Obama remained cool, and seemingly remained fixated on issues and policy differences with McCain. His Ayers response will likely please all but those Republicans who wanted him to raise the issue. His statements seemed centered on the future and on policies for the most part. His final statement was foward-looking and almost Kennedyesque.

MCCAIN: For the first 30 minutes there were glimpses of the McCain who many supported in 2000. But he didn’t sustain the presentation. McCain’s facial expressions — a medley of mime-like anger-masking smiles, wide-eyed grimaces and condescending sneers which could have the same impact as Al Gore’s sighs — will likely make the round of You Tubes. McCain was on the offense but it almost became a formula: at the beginning of nearly every statement he would attack Obama, and at times talked in a condescending way. He looked at Obama in this debate, but you got the feeling he had been instructed to do so. His final statement was a poignant reminder of his family’s service to the nation.

MOST LIKELY IMPACT: It’s hard to predict if McCain’s polls will go up (rallying more members of the GOP base who might have become disheartened) or down (more defections from independents). But McCain didn’t turn in a performance that likely wowed the vast number of viewers. If polls come out showing he “lost” the debate, his overall poll numbers will continue to fall.

Obama’s position on abortion has been well known. McCain’s strong pro-life statement could now hurt him with some women, Democrats and independent voters (who reportedly tend to be more pro-choice) since he there is now no doubt at all where he stands on the issue.

Here’s a cross section of news media and weblog reaction to the debate:


The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza:

McCain did not score the knockout blow that many Republicans had hoped but he did land several solid body shots — the best of which was his repudiation of Obama’s contention that he represented four more years of President George W. Bush.

Obama, well aware of his lead in state and national polls, refused to be flustered by McCain and instead brought nearly every question he was asked back to the economy and the struggles of average middle class families. Obama wasn’t particularly dynamic, but he didn’t have to be.

The New York Times’ lead story:

Senator John McCain repeatedly tried to put Senator Barack Obama on the defensive on Wednesday in the final debate of the marathon presidential race, accusing him of seeking to raise taxes, associating with a former terrorist and engaging in an unmatched barrage of negative campaigning.

Mr. Obama, pivoting from Mr. McCain’s critiques, accused his opponent of trying to divert attention from the nation’s ailing economy, refocusing the debate to his central assertion about Mr. McCain: that he represented a continuation of Bush administration economic policies. It was a line of attack that Mr. McCain was prepared for.

“Senator Obama, I am not President Bush,” Mr. McCain said. “If you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

He asserted emphatically, “I want to take the country in a different direction.”

Their exchanges were the most spirited of their three debates, and the two candidates differed sharply on such issues as health care, the economic crisis, trade and abortion.

Saying that the negative campaigning had been the “primary focus” of Mr. McCain’s campaign, Mr. Obama said the race should instead center on what Americans “deserve over the next four weeks,” adding “that we talk about what’s most pressing to them — the economic crisis.”

Los Angeles Times:

When Sen. John McCain spoke to supporters at a campaign phone bank in Virginia earlier this week, he vowed to “whip” Sen. Barack Obama’s “you know what” in the presidential debate tonight.

But a newly aggressive McCain failed to deliver a clear knockout blow in the candidates’ third and final face-off, despite a series of sharp verbal clashes with Obama about higher taxes, negative campaigning, former radical Bill Ayers and a bald man nicknamed Joe the Plumber.

CNN’s Political Ticker:

During Wednesday night’s presidential debate, Barack Obama ducked a question on whether or not he though Sarah Palin is qualified to be president.

“That’s going to be up to the American people,” Obama said. “I think that obviously she’s capable politician. She has, I think, excited the base in the Republican Party and I think it’s very commendable, the work she’s done on behalf of special needs.”


The attacks were a calculated gamble on the part of the McCain campaign, which has seen its polling numbers fall as its anti-Obama rhetoric has diverged from substantive policy discussions.

The sharpest attacks Wednesday night came on Obama’s ties to a national organizing group that he said was perpetrating the “biggest fraud in American history” in its voter registration drives in predominantly urban and minority communities.

McCain had said beforehand that he would also attack Obama’s ties to William Ayers, a founder of the radical 1960s activist group Weather Underground. But Wednesday night, he shifted his focus to ACORN, which has been accused by conservative commentators of voter fraud because registrars have found phony registration applications submitted by canvassers for the group.

“Mr. Ayers — I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist,” McCain said, adding simply that “we need to know the extent of Senator Obama’s relationship” with Ayers.

He hit much harder on Obama’s ties to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, a liberal activist group that Obama represented in a voting rights lawsuit in the 1990s.

Obama maintained that ACORN’s efforts were independent of his campaign and accused McCain of trying to change the subject from Ayers because his campaign’s attacks were not working.

“Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain’s campaign in recent weeks,” Obama complained, saying he had “roundly condemned” Ayers’ advocacy of violent reform three decades ago, before Ayers became a college professor and advocate for education programs.

“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,” Obama said. “The fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Senator McCain, says more about your campaign than it does about me.”

ABC News’ George Stephanapoulos:

During a fast-paced, spirited, and sometimes heated debate, McCain had his best debate, but Obama still won.

….One of McCain’s worst moments during the debate was when Obama was calling for more civility during the campaign, but McCain brought up Obama’s connection to former 1960s radical William Ayers.

“We need to disagree without being disagreeable,” Obama said. But McCain argued, “We need to know the full extent of your relationship [with Ayers], with ACORN … all of these things need to be examined, of course.”

It was a tactical mistake. McCain is already seen by many voters as going negtaive during the campaign.

Ultimately, McCain didn’t do enough to stop people from voting for Obama. Over the course of three debate the Obama campaign met their goal of reassuring the American people that he’s ready to serve as president.

CBS News:

McCain took an aggressive approach, but once again, neither man landed a knockout punch nor committed a major gaffe.

“John McCain turned in an energetic, focused and, at times, emotional performance,” said senior political editor Vaughn Ververs. “But he needed something more in order to change the underlying dynamics of this race. Obama was solid, on-message and mostly mistake free, likely stunting any major gains for the Republican. McCain may have righted the ship to some extent, but time is running out for him to make up ground.”


-Glenn Reynolds aka Instapundit:

MY FINAL TAKE: This was a lot better than the Brokaw debate. McCain seemed more improved than Obama over last time, but scored no knockout punches. This time McCain looked like he was having a better time than Obama; Obama’s smirking was unattractive, but his closing statement was strong.

–Andrew Sullivan did live blogging. His conclusion:

Closing statements: McCain seemed almost wistful. Obama ended on “sacrifice, service and responsibility.” Obama won this for the third time. A small prediction: there will be YouTube mash-ups of McCain’s facial reactions on the split screen. And they will have a longer life, for good or ill, than many of the substantive exchanges.

Crooks and Liars:

Clearly, in all his debate prep, no one thought to coach McCain not to go to the third rail of the abortion issue. Boy, was that an oversight. Because not only did McCain go there, he jumped right on to it.

In trying to paint Obama as being for the great Republican bugaboo of late term abortions (because, you know, there are so many women running around and deciding after being pregnant for six or more months that being pregnant is no longer convenient for them), Obama replied that he didn’t vote for the late term abortion ban because it had no provision for the health or life of the mother. And that’s when McCain proved how heartless and clueless he is…

Red State:

Tonight we finally saw what so many of us have been waiting for. John McCain mopped the floor with Barack Obama.

Throughout the night, Barack Obama looked distant, like he did not want to be there, like he was annoyed. He really looked annoyed all night.

McCain on the other hand looked like the comeback kid — the guy who knew he had to do well. And he did.

Here is why it mattered.

Between October 24th and 27th of 1980, Jimmy Carter was ahead of Ronald Reagan by six points. Obama is up three in the traditional Gallup poll and up eight in the expanded Gallup poll.

This becomes very doable for John McCain tonight. It becomes very doable.

McCain talked to independents in a way that also helped him with conservatives.

Marc Ambinder:

Tonight’s winner: Joe the plumber. The candidates would kill for this kind of free advertising.

Also: Bob Schieffer. The best moderator. This was the best debate. You really got a good sense of where the candidates stood.

More seriously: McCain and Obama tied on points. Maybe McCain even won on points. Solid policy answers, tough policy attacks, solid command of the facts. The first and last thirty minutes were among McCain’s best .

But debates aren’t usually won on points.

They’re won on valence and visuals.

Emotions and body language.

And tonight, we saw a McXplosion. Every single attack that Sen. McCain has ever wanted to make, he took the opportunity tonight to make. Around 30 minutes in, McCain seemed to surrender the debate to his frustrations, making it seem as if he just wanted the free television.

His substance suffered; it didn’t make sense at times. He seemed personally offended by negative ads; he tried to make a point about Obama’s character, but all the sleight were those Obama allegedly inflicted on Obama: the town halls, campaign finance, negative ads, etc. He allowed himself to get caught up in his own grievances. It was just plain unattractive on television. He moved quickly from William Ayers to taxes without a transition. From Obama’s opposition to trade agreements to taxes. No intermediate steps. Blizzards of words without unifying strings.

Talk Left’s Jeralyn:

It seems unanimous among the news analysts that the Ayers attack didn’t work.

I don’t see how McCain turns this election around. Even a new, last minute attack will fall short because so many people will have voted before election day.

Nobody, other than the conservative base, liked McCain’s smirking and condescending manner tonight.

CNN’s John King now puts Obama at 277 electoral votes, more than enough to win. And that’s with Colorado and Florida still being toss-ups. He says needs to turn a big blue state, like PA, red. But it’s unlikely because PA is too blue right now — Obama’s up by 10 to 12 points there.

During a commercial break, an announcer touting CNN’s upcoming election coverage asked if there would be recount like in 2004. They should redo that promo — it looks more and more like it will be a blowout.


I think it’s clear that McCain won the debate tonight for several reasons. One in particular: McCain did himself a lot of good when he asked Obama, “Why raise taxes on anyone right now?” because it shifted the view that the candidate who truly understands the economic crisis and how to fix it is John McCain, unlike Obama, who wants to implement redistributionist policies as if the crisis weren’t happening at all. Sure, Obama talks a good game about how Americans are hurting but when it comes to policies, he’d be disastrous.

Marty Kaplan on The Huffington Post:

Man, those relentless close-ups were cruel. And the split screen was killer. If you only heard the debate on the radio, you missed the show of the century.

Ninety minutes of John McCain making faces was more than enough for a lifetime. He smirked. He grimaced. He sneered. He fake-smiled. It’s hard to imagine anyone willingly inviting that antic lemon-sucking grinfest into their homes for the next four years.

His face was a way better read-out of how the debate was going than the CNN seismograph of independents.

….At least he didn’t wink.

The Daily Kos’ Kos says snap polls have made the cable pundits obsolete:

If it wasn’t for the snap polls, the pundits would be proclaiming this night a glorious victory for McCain. John King, who gave McCain an 18-15 victory in his debate scorecard, was just on ranting against the snap polls, saying they were bunk because people are answering just after watching the debate, while being too “emotional” … unlike the pundits who are all about reason and logic.


I love how the American people don’t [care] what John King thinks. They can decide for themselves who won.

And that’s why John King hates them.

…Andrea Mitchell articulated it directly — and sniffily — saying that McCain had won on points, whether the polls would reflect that or not.

They didn’t like it, but polling technology is one more way their role as gatekeepers has been diminished.

John McCain opened strongly in his debate with Barack Obama tonight, but he faded in the second half. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that McCain cut into Obama’s lead through this performance. And Obama may have taken another small step towards making Americans comfortable with the prospect of his presidency. That Obama accomplished this by taking considerable liberties with the truth is, I suppose, beside the point….McCain’s closing statement was choppy and not terribly effective. Obama’s wasn’t much better. But then, it probably didn’t need to be.


The major headline coming out of this debate will be fairly simple — John McCain failed to do anything tonight to change the tone of this debate, he failed to do anything to convince the public that he would be a better steward of the economy, and he failed completely in any effort to raise any doubts about the character or readiness of his opponent.

There are twenty days to go. The poll numbers will fluctuate along with the headlines, as will the polls in individual battleground states. However, it’s fairly clear after tonight that the trend that started in mid-September with Barack Obama taking the lead will continue and that Barack Obama will be the next President of the United States.

James Joyner:

Obama seemed cool and confident throughout, occasionally amused, while McCain seemed too eager to get in some rather poorly crafted and rehearsed talking points. The attack lines seemed forced rather than conversational, let alone amusing.

The questions, while supposed to be different, were mostly repeats of what we heard the first two times. Schieffer threw a softball to Obama on why his VP pick was more qualified to be president than McCain’s but he bunted. McCain actually did reasonably well with the question and I don’t think it hurt him.

Overall, I don’t see how McCain helped himself tonight, much less hit the home run he needed to put himself back into this thing.

Political Scientist Dr. Steven Taylor:

James Joyner has reached the same conclusion that I did a few days ago: that it looks like an Obama win and that McCain would need a miracle to pull it out.

As such he dubs tonight’s debate: “McCain’s Final Stand.”


For the McCain campaign, I suspect that it may be the Alamo (with no Battle of San Jacinto to make up for it, however).

Salon’s Joan Walsh:

As usual Obama was calm, measured, reassuring. I loved their exchange over Obama’s reservations about a free-trade agreement with Colombia, the importance of which McCain insisted Obama didn’t really understand. “Actually, I understand it pretty well,” Obama replied. “Labor leaders have been targeted for assassination. We have to stand for human rights and make sure violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are organizing for their rights.” Imagine a president who can think that well on his feet, and who’ll stand up for workers’ rights.

McCain’s less-bad debate performance won’t change the downward arc of his campaign. The latest Los Angeles Times poll found him trailing Obama by 9 points, and also showed that Sarah Palin is driving more voters away from McCain than she was pulling in. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the Republican National Committee is cutting off presidential advertising in Maine and Wisconsin, to focus on states like Colorado, Missouri, Indiana and Virginia. McCain needed a big win, and I haven’t heard anyone yet who thought he got it. CNN poll: Obama 58, McCain 31.

Ta-Nehisi Coates did live blogging. Two chunks:

10:31 That was a great job moderating. I think Obama had it–not by much, but he had it. I think John McCain just looked petty for much of the debate. It ain’t his year.

…9:39 You just heard why John McCain will lose. He pivoted from an attack on ACORN and Ayers to his campaign getting the economy back on track. Worst segue ever. The two don’t line up. Ayers and ACORN don’t take you to a larger campaign theme. This isn’t “Swiftboating” which took you to the War on Terror. This isn’t Willie Horton, which took you to crime. This isn’t “States Rights” which takes you to busing and the Voting Rights Act. It’s just empty demagoguery. It doesn’t say anything about what is foremost in the electorate’s minds.

Josh Marshall:

The consensus from initial reactions is that this was McCain’s best of the three debates. And I’m not sure I disagree with that. One of the best sum-ups I saw was actually from Republican Mike Murphy….. I think that in formal debating terms McCain definitely did better than in the two previous debates. Often, in formal terms, he had Obama on the defensive. But McCain was just surly and contemptuous through the whole 90 minutes. He looked angry. I mean, let’s not kid ourselves: he was angry. That was obvious all the way through. I think that voters will not like that. And just as important it tends to confirm the current narrative of the campaign, which is that McCain is negative and angry.

Obama wasn’t perfect. Maybe a bit off his game. But I don’t think John McCain helped himself. His gambit in this debate was to say to voters that his anger and passion was theirs. But I don’t think he sold that argument. John McCain is just angry. Mainly angry that it’s his moment and this upstart named Barack Obama is taking it from him. That’s about him, not anyone else.

My DD’s Todd Beaton notes that McCain HURT HIMSELF in the debate in his favorability ratings:

Check out these ridiculous favorability numbers from Greenberg Quinlan Rosner during a focus group that began tilted toward John McCain but didn’t end up that way:

McCain Favorables

Favorable: 54 percent before debate –> 50 percent after debate
Unfavorable: 34 percent before debate –> 48 percent after debate

Obama Favorables

Favorable: 42 percent before debate –> 72 percent after debate
Unfavorable: 42 percent before debate –> 22 percent after debate

The focus group was “decisive” for Obama.

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