The Third Presidential Debate – McCain Gets It Right

Finally, after two previous attempts, John McCain got it right. If you’re a subscriber to my blogs, you’ll recall that I explained why Barack Obama previously has had superior performances. During the past two weeks, the press buzzed with the notion that the third debate was McCain’s last chance to show voters that he has what it takes to be President…and he delivered.

This is not to take anything anyway from Senator Obama. As I wrote earlier, he has excellent communication skills, which is why he moved from a long shot to the nominee for the Democratic Party. Those skills were on display again Wednesday night as Obama calmly answered questions and listened intently and openly to McCain’s answers. But this debate was very different, primarily because McCain finally corrected the mistakes he had made in the previous debates.

A defining moment came six minute into the debate when McCain mentioned Obama’s encounter with “Joe the Plumber” (Joe Wurzelbacher). During a campaign trip through Ohio a few days before, Joe had expressed concern to Obama that he would not be able to buy a plumbing business due to Obama’s tax plan. Looking directly into the TV camera, McCain said, “Joe, I want to tell you, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and I’ll keep your taxes low and I’ll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees. And I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income.”

Using the story of Joe was a brilliant way to illustrate what McCain sees as a flawed tax plan. Stay tuned for McCain to use Joe the Plumber as a metaphor for Obama’s concept of “spreading the wealth”.

A second defining moment came 19 minutes into the debate when McCain responded to Obama’s comparing McCain to George W. Bush. “Senator Obama,” said McCain, “I’m not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush you should have run four years ago.” This was the perfect response to Obama’s most successful strategy to date – linking McCain to George Bush. Too bad for the Republicans that McCain hadn’t introduced this comment earlier, although I suspect we’ll hear it repeated again over the next several weeks.

McCain seemed to be particularly alert during this debate. At one point he corrected moderator Bob Shieffer by saying “change” when Shieffer had misspoken and said “climate ‘control’”. In addition, on two occasions McCain complimented Obama on his eloquence and cautioned the audience to listen to the vague words Obama was using (i.e. “have to ‘look at’ offshore drilling”).

On other occasions McCain was sharp and witty. Following Obama’s response that education vouchers don’t work, McCain shot back, “Because there aren’t enough vouchers, therefore we shouldn’t do it, even if it’s working. I got it.” Not only was this an poignant observation, but instead of looking angry, McCain let out a big laugh.

As with the two previous debates, Obama demonstrated poise and confidence with his off camera behavior. His ability to focus intently on McCain while McCain answered questions was remarkable. He continued to maintain unflappable facial expressions during some of McCain’s most vehementous pronouncements. Nothing seemed to bother Obama.

However, in sharp contrast to his previous performances, McCain’s off camera expressions were very different. In the first debate, McCain appeared disgusted with Obama whenever Obama spoke. This time he maintained a pleasant expression, frequently laughed, looked at Obama while Obama was speaking and spoke directly to the camera when it was appropriate to connect with the TV audience. It was clear that McCain had received some good coaching over the past several weeks.
Whereas McCain dramatically improved in his style and content, Obama committed the same vocal errors of the previous debates. He came across as unsure of himself with the expression “I think”, which he said 41 times. (“I think he (Biden) shares my core values.” “Here’s what I think we have to do.”) Furthering the perception of uncertainty, he used the filler “uh” at least 169 times, thus eclipsing his first debate (146 times). By eliminating the fillers and non-positives, Obama will be perceived as much direct and definitive.

McCain stumbled over his concluding remarks and would have come across stronger had he said, “I urge you to give me an opportunity to serve again” instead of “I hope …” Obama, on the other hand, was smooth and fluid. Unlike McCain, he urged people to vote for him with his final comment “I would ask for your vote.” This would have been stronger by omitting the word “would” and simply saying “I ask for your vote.”

For the most part, the post debate polls show Obama as the clear winner, which makes me wonder who the media is polling. My bet is that the success of this debate will catapult McCain into a much closer race with Obama than the polls are indicating now. And you can bet that Joe the Plumber will play an important role.

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