It Was McCain’s Best Debate, But Was It Good Enough?

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Okay, girl. You need some rest. Photo: Getty Images

With little time left to make up the considerable gap between himself and Barack Obama, the onus was on John McCain last night to turn in a stellar debate performance. He did score a few points, but at the cost of appearing angry and dismissive. He appeased his base by hammering Obama on William Ayers, ACORN, and abortion, but that probably didn't help him among the voters who haven't (unbelievably enough) actually made up their minds yet. And unless Joe the Plumber becomes a national rallying cry (please, God, no) , there was nothing McCain did that fundamentally altered the course of his campaign. It's possible that McCain's best just wasn't good enough, because, as James Ingram once sang, "here we are, back where we were before."

• E.J. Dionne Jr. says McCain made a "desperate effort" to revive his candidacy by bringing up Ayers, ACORN, and Joe the Plumber, but it's unlikely he "helped himself much with the moderate and middle-class voters who have drifted away from him." [WP]

• Walter Shapiro thinks "Obama accomplished his simple but vital mission on Wednesday night — don't make any blunders." McCain, meanwhile, tried to both "appease the conservative base" and show flashes of "the senator who excelled at working with Democrats." [Salon]

• John Dickerson thinks that McCain "did well" and had some "strong moments," but that it "wasn't enough." Obama was better able to make a pitch to the middle class, and "also had the stylistic points down, talking to the camera when addressing voters." Overall, McCain just "didn't get what he needed at Hofstra University, and Barack Obama did nothing to offer him an opportunity." [Slate]

• James Fallows writes that "[e]verything about Barack Obama's approach to this debate, and all debates, was consistent with" the fact that persuadable voters are, at this point, moderates. "Almost nothing about John McCain's approach was." [Atlantic]

• Byron York claims that "[t]here seems little doubt that McCain scored many more points than Obama," but viewers in this debate, like the other debates, probably preferred Obama's "demeanor" and liked him more as the event progressed. [National Review]

• Ezra Klein believes McCain "scored the most points" and often succeeded at landing some shots, but they "came at a cost" and "left him with little time to appear presidential." [American Prospect]

• Michael Scherer calls it McCain's best debate so far, one in which he "shaped the conversation, putting Barack Obama on the defensive," and even "got under Obama's skin at several points." Even so, McCain couldn't produce the game-changer he needed. [Swampland/Time]

• Noam Scheiber says McCain's problems included "garden-variety incoherence," difficulty fitting his talking points into his answers, "making jokes and allusions no one else" caught, and "sneering and dismissiveness." In sum, McCain "came up empty on his last, best chance." [Stump/New Republic]

• Mark Steyn, in contrast, says "McCain was never able to cast aside the Senatorial collegiality and really stick it to Obama." And without that "killer instinct," McCain ending up "elevating Obama." [Corner/National Review]

• Chuck Todd and friends write that McCain failed to "accomplish the major goal of disqualifying Obama as president without raising his negatives," and spent more time talking to his own supporters than to the middle. [First Read/MSNBC]

• Andrew Romano suspects that the "dwindling bloc of undecided voters" weren't convinced by McCain's "kitchen sink" attack strategy. [Stumper/Newsweek]

• John F. Harris and Jim Vandehei write that McCain has little reason "to be optimistic that he has turned his troubled campaign in a new direction," and in fact came off as "edgy, even angry." [Politico]

• Franklin Foer guesses that "McCain’s bulging eyes and barely contained rage will be the narrative, possibly for the remainder of the campaign." Obama was "lethargic," but that may have only served to "set McCain’s more unhinged moments in stark relief." [Plank/New Republic]

• Craig Crawford thinks McCain's best line, about not being President Bush, "came across as nothing short of a last resort." Maybe it would have worked a month ago, but not this close to an election. [CQ Politics]

• Marc Ambinder gives McCain a slight edge on points, but notes that debates are often "won on valence and visuals." In that respect, Obama was "cool as a cucumber," while McCain "seemed to surrender the debate to his frustrations," and his "substance suffered" as a result. [Atlantic]

• Josh Marshall concedes that this was probably McCain's best debate, and "in formal terms, he had Obama on the defensive." But it was obvious that McCain was "surly and contemptuous through the whole 90 minutes," which is important because it "tends to confirm the current narrative of the campaign, which is that McCain is negative and angry." [Talking Points Memo]

• Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks McCain "just looked petty for much of the debate." [Atlantic]

• John Podheretz sees a problem in the way McCain talked about the partisan issues his base was yearning for, like ACORN, Ayers, and abortion. The "shorthand in which McCain spoke about these matters made them comprehensible only to those of us who are already schooled in them," while Obama responded with long explanations that "gave the distinct impression he was more in command of the details." [Commentary/Contentions]

For a complete and regularly updated guide to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.