It was summer of last year.  The Democratic field of presidential hopefuls was still at an astonishing eight candidates, topped only by the Republican field of ten.  At the time, the one time shoo in John McCain was dwelling in the basement area, with Rudy Giuliani leading in most polls and Mitt Romney looking to make a strong showing in early state primary contests.  By contrast, the Maverick was suffering from a perception from party faithful conservatives that he was too liberal to be the party’s standard bearer, a problem only exacerbated by his illegal immigration views which ran contrary to the more xenophobic tendancies of the base.

Few would have given him halfway decent odds that he would eventually become the party’s nominee.

But in a CNN hosted debate in New Hampshire, we would see the John McCain who would ultimately outlast a field of candidates each of whom would trip and fall from grace.  After watching well over thirty debates from both parties, the specific moment I speak of continues to stand out as the most indellible in my mind.

If you’ll remember, the first half of the debate was far more traditional; the candidates stood at podiums, and the debate moderators asked the kinds of questions that debate moderators ask.  Then, about halfway through, the format was switched into a town meeting format; podiums were exchanged for chairs, and the questions came directly from members of the audience.

Up until that moment, McCain had done little to distinguish himself from the field, and then the following question came from New Hampshire resident Erin Flanagan:

It [The Iraq War] is. Unfortunately, my beloved little brother, 1st Lieutenant Michael Joseph Cleary, was killed in action in Taji, Iraq, eight days before he was to return home on December 20th of 2005.

He was the best of the best and answered the call to serve our country.

My family has been devastated by the loss.

As a member of an American family who has suffered so greatly at the choices made by the current administration, I desperately would like to know what you as commander in chief would do, both in the halls of the American government, to bring the parties together, as well as on the desert sands of the Middle East to bring this conflict to a point in which we can safely bring our troops home.

Duncan Hunter and Sam Brownback kicked off the conversation, and then Wolf Blitzer turned the discussion over to John McCain.  Up until that moment, his opponents had all remained seated as they answered the questions directed towards them, but at this moment, John McCain stood and looked directly at Flanagan as he replied:

MCCAIN: It’s not — ma’am, I want to tell you thank you for your brother’s service and sacrifice to our country. We are proud of you and your endurance, and we’re proud of your sacrifice.

This war — I’m going to give you a little straight talk. This war was very badly mismanaged for a long time. And Americans have made great sacrifices, some of which were unnecessary because of this management of the war — mismanagement of this conflict.

I believe we have a fine general. I believe we have a strategy which can succeed, so that the sacrifice of your brother would not be in vain, that a whole 20 million or 30 million people would have a chance to live a free life in an open society, and practice their religion, no matter what those differences are.

And I believe that if we fail, it will become a center of terrorism, and we will ask more young Americans to sacrifice, as your brother did.

This is long and hard and tough. But I think we can succeed.

And God bless you.

The words in transcript don’t do the moment justice.  In that brief instant of time, McCain expressed the kind of deep connection that voters often times look for in their presidents, and McCain’s own experience as a POW lent gravitas to the condolences that he offered the questioner.  No one on stage did that that night, even though every single person who followed him made a point of standing up as they answered whenever the topic of discussion turned to something so solemn as troops in Iraq.

Indeed, I even noticed the small change among the Democratic field as well like dinner guests who all forgot a point of etiquette until they were discreetly reminded by the host.  Some will say that McCain is a terrible debater, but he knows how to change the game when he needs to as in the moment above.

He understands that the entire dynamics of a race can be shifted with just the right soundbite, one exactly like his Woodstock Museum zinger during a later debate.

New Obama supporters may be salivating at the thought of Obama vs. McCain, but the old hats, the ones that watched all or nearly all of the two dozen debates held during the Democratic primary contest may have a different reaction during the run up to the first debate being held in Oxford Mississippi this Friday.

Yes, the McCain campaign may be playing the expectation setting game completely wrong, lowering expectations for the Democratic candidate when they should be raising them; but that little strategic error not withstanding, they may have hit the nail on the head with Obama.

For one thing, the first debate’s focus is supposed to be foreign policy, a traditionally weak area for Democrats.  Note that I don’t actually think that John McCain is knowledgeably stronger than Obama on foreign policy and national security, not by a long shot.  But as I have laid out before, McCain automatically gets the benefit of the doubt in this arena, whether he deserves it or not.

McCain’s Spain gaffe, for instance, is not an isolated incident, but is instead a part of a broader string of foreign policy gaffes and missteps, all of which should together paint the candidate as, at best, blundering when it comes to foreign policy.  This obviously isn’t the case.

The first reason why complacency must be avoided at all costs is because if the focus of the election becomes national security, this election will turn into an uphill battle real quick, and the reality of the two candidates won’t change that one bit.  Given time and a proper response, Obama could feasibly shift the debate in his favor, but McCain will undeservedly have the upper hand because he is a former POW, and, ironically, is a Republican.

But beyond this, there’s another thing to consider.  After watching nearly all of the Democratic debates, one thing is clear–Obama is not well suited to them.  For one, Obama does not give good soundbite, and it is a struggle for him to answer questions into sixty second answers putting him at a great disadvantage.  He speaks in clauses and paragraphs, not in short clips that easily find themselves being replayed over and over again on the airwaves in the following days.

This is deadly in the realm of post debate spin because it is one thing for a campaign to aggressively insist that their candidate won, but it is another thing entirely for media consumers to be treated to the same one line zinger over and over again every time they turn on the radio or the TV.

The other thing that worries me greatly is that while Obama is an effective counter puncher, he’s a terrible aggressor.  When Obama goes on the attack, he’s often clumsy and typically swings off the back foot.  What are often times meant to serve as body blows typically come out awkward and either forced or confusing.

Further, while much is written about Obama’s great oratory skills, the fact of the matter is that he’s an incredibly unpolished debator.  He does say “uh” and “um” an awful lot, and while I disagree with the McCain campaign’s jab that Obama is “lost without a teleprompter” I do think that Obama on the stump and Obama in a debate are two different people.  Without the teleprompter, Obama is the back room wonk that may be incredibly well informed and know how all the pieces fit together, but he’s not the guy that you actually put out there to sell the final plans and results.

Don’t get me wrong, on a substantive basis, I think Obama will prove to be far superior than McCain, but I also think that he suffers from a style deficit in this specific format that will overcome this fact, and thus make it highly unlikely that Obama can actually “win” this debate.


  1. radical_Moderate says:

    I’m with you on this one Kyle. It is essential that Obama loses the “absent minded professor” vibe that hurt him at Saddleback, and gives the sort of short decisive answers that served McCain so well that night. The “ums and uhs” are distracting, let us hope that Obama works to get rid of these “ticks.” I notice that during his one on one interviews, sans teleprompter I might add, that Obama does very well and doesn’t have the problems with those odd pauses. If Obama nails these debates then the election could be decided in his favor, if he comes off as the distant, “not like me” Obama he may well be sunk, and the rational among us will be in for 4 more years of hell. McCain is not an impressive intellect, but he can connect…and this may well end up as another election by “connection” like Bush’s in 2004.

  2. Ron Ralph says:

    A sea change as citizens see their savings disappear.

    nader paul kucinich gravel
    Open the damn debates!
    mckinney ventura
    perot charts

  3. Diane says:

    I am an Obama supporter and I’m looking forward to the debate this Friday. I wonder though, who decides what questions are asked and are the candidates told ahead of time? I sure hope not. With the race somewhat close (closer than I would like anyway) I want to see shoot from the hip answers to see who knows what without preparation.

  4. veronica says:


    I just heard the news. I am speechless. MCCAIN DROPS 10 points behind on tuesday and suspends his campaign over a bunch of thieves in NY and DC on Wednesday late. Get real. He never surrendered in prison camp, why fold the tent over one issue. As President he would have tons of problems to deal with. Isn’t he up to it? The congress will hammer out the bail out. We need a new president. Answer the questions of the people. Don’t hide. Next we will hear that he is recalling all the voting machines because someone figured out the codes to rig the results…oops sorry Mr. Gore.

    What a lame excuse to hide and to keep Sarah out of harms way (you naughty press boys and girls).

    Tricky Dick would be so proud of McCainGate today? Where is Deep Throat (RIP) when we need him?

  5. sam says:

    you’re right.

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