McCain needed a knockout, and he didn't get it.

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Oct. 8 2008 12:48 AM

The Winner: "That One"

McCain needed a knockout, and he didn't get it.

John McCain and Barack Obama. Click image to expand.
John McCain and Barack Obama

After their second debate, both Barack Obama and John McCain shook hands with the Nashville audience of 80 uncommitted voters. Both were well-received. But Obama stayed longer, and with McCain out of the room, the affection from the swing voters increased. He was mobbed, patted, beamed at, embraced. One woman wiggled up next to him. At one point, about 15 voters posed for a group picture like it was the last day of camp. The "Nashville '08 Debate" T-shirts are in the mail.

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk.

These uncommitted voters wanted to be next to Barack Obama, and the adulation from the audience helps explain why he won the debate. In the post-debate polls on CNN and CBS, he was the clear winner, and he also won Fox's focus group.

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Obama's likeability is good for him and bad for McCain, of course, but it also undercuts McCain's credibility. It exposes the picture McCain has been painting of Obama in the last few days as a caricature. Since McCain's slide in the polls, he has started personal attacks questioning Obama's character and values. "Who is the real Barack Obama?" McCain asks on the stump and in his ads. Sarah Palin says Obama isn't from "regular" America. He's out of the mainstream, aides regularly say.

That cartoon version of Obama didn't show up for the 90-minute debate Tuesday. If it had, those audience members would have been waving garlic as they fled from the room rather than sticking around so they could tell their neighbors about it.

Instead, what they saw was a Democrat saying, "We will kill Bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida." He said he thought America was a force for good. Obama also got to repeat those elements of his biography—his mother's death from cancer and his modest upbringing—that contradict the image of him as a spooky alien. 

McCain, meanwhile, did not take Sarah Palin's advice. He did not attack. He pressed Obama repeatedly on issues, but he didn't attack Obama's character. (Don't worry, he will again tomorrow.) McCain stressed that he had a record people could check, while Obama offered nothing but rhetoric. That's fine as far as it goes, but McCain needs more.

McCain is in a tough spot. He's behind. Obama has the momentum, and McCain needs to take it away. He didn't necessarily do poorly—and he did much better on foreign policy than on domestic matters. But McCain needed to change the dynamic. You could see him trying. He pressed Obama on his opposition to the surge, the penalty Obama would impose on those who didn't sign up for a health-care plan, even that he was speaking too long. But this was all small stuff. A town-hall debate is a hard place to change the dynamic, and yet there are few opportunities in the remaining 27 days where he has such a big chance.

Since Bill Clinton's successful town-hall debates, the format has required a compulsory empathy competition where the candidates reach out to the audience. McCain thanked a Navy veteran for his service and patted him on the shoulder. Obama had no equivalent empathetic moment, but he did a better job explaining how the bailout package affected regular folks.

The night was billed as a town hall—but I've seen town halls, and this wasn't one. The strict rules apparently had frightened the questioners with foreclosure if they asked anything interesting, followed up with the candidates, or performed any acts of spontaneity. Town halls are supposed to be freewheeling and probing. This format was dull, and the constant ankle-biting between the candidates compounded the problem. 

The optics of the town hall were also dreadful, which hurt McCain. His war injuries meant he couldn't take the relaxed pose Obama held while McCain was giving his answers. The Obama campaign studied the tape of the first debate and recognized that the candidate is often caught in a two shot and so must always look relaxed and attentive. While Obama talked, McCain took an occasional walkabout. This was disconcerting. It looked like he was getting up to get a beer.

There is already a lot of talk in the blogosphere about McCain's referring to Obama as "that one." The Obama campaign was pushing the idea that it was proof McCain was a man of bitter moods. I didn't see it as a major act of disrespect, but it did feel antiquated. I have relatives—older relatives—who use this expression. My mother's version of it was to call someone "himself." (As in, "I'm glad himself has decided to join us for dinner.") McCain has 27 days to find a better way to take on his opponent, or he'll be calling him Mr. President.

Slate V: What if Obama loses? Canada beckons.

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