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Presidential Debate Preview « The Washington Independent

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/obama-mccain.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCpix)

For a man who had pressed for a series of town hall debates across the country in which he, the Republican nominee for president and his Democratic rival would travel the country like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Sen. John McCain enters tonight’s debate as a battered candidate whose campaign is on the brink of a Kryptonesque explosion.

After having “suspended” his campaign for like five minutes to play the white knight who would save the nation from financial chaos, McCain has suddenly morphed into a figure of derision. He is viewed by many — most notably David Letterman — as an opportunist who used the economic crisis to display his executive prowess to the voting public.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Thus tonight’s debate–one originally tailored to McCain’s expertise in foreign policy–is up for grabs. It is the main event that McCain first attempted to cancel. Now, he has been dragged, kicking and screaming, to the podium in Oxford, Miss. Not a great orator by any stretch, the maverick comes in with exceptionally low expectations from a public that, day by day, is losing its faith in the economic engine that fostered so many American dreams.

For both candidates, tonight’s forum presents great opportunities as well as great risk. This is the beginning of the end of days for this election. But we finally get to see each nominee, without surrogates and press aides hovering, make a direct pitch to a weary, disgruntled public about why he is best qualified to lead the free world.

Needless to say, McCain’s fumbling, with a little more than a month left at the campaign, could not come at a worse time. But tonight, after everything that has and has not happened these past two weeks, offers the voting public an opportunity its view of the man once considered a straight talker. Tonight, McCain could well be that man again.

To do that, however he must rise above his party affiliation and prove himself, really prove himself a different man than the president and a GOP whose approval ratings seem to drop daily.

“We have real problems,” said Tony Marsh, a Republican strategist, talking about his own party. “What he has to do is rant and rave that we’re playing politics at a time when America is suffering and that his place should be in Washington not Mississippi. He needs to take the questions — and weave every single question about international affairs into the idea of America’s interest at home. He might be more comfortable talking about foreign policy, but at the end of the day he can’t afford not to talk about America and say what makes us strong abroad is our strength at home.”

McCain is not a rhetorical star, anyone who’s spent a day with him can attest to this. However, what he has been able to convey in what seem like countless town halls, is the image of a man standing on a firm foundation, someone who’d survived war and imprisonment, stood against his own party in the time of crisis for the good of the country.

“He has to look like he’s taking command of the economic crisis,” said former Bush White House adviser and Republican strategist Leslie Sanchez. “Presidential debates tend to personify what we think of candidates. It’s little things, quite frankly, that personify the impression the public has of you. It’s the personification that John McCain is a doer; and Obama is a talker. That’s probably the biggest point of satisfaction that can come out of the debate for him.”

Indeed, like George W. Bush before him, McCain is helped by diminished expectations. While Americans overwhelmingly have given the edge in the debates to Obama, the truth is that the Illinois senator was often bested in such venues by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton during the primaries. McCain has the chance to be the counter-punch, the man ready to lead after we’re done oggling at the rock star.

“McCain just has to be solid,” said Ed Rollins, who served as national campaign director for Ronald Reagan’s triumphant 1984 run and, more recently, orchestrated former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s presidential run. “He just needs a solid performance in which he shows his experience and how he can be commander-in-chief.”

This might be Obama’s debate to lose. But to win he must overcome a weighty obstacle: himself. Those of us who’ve spent time with him and asked questions usually get thoughtful, articulate responses. He possesses an intellectual heft few people have. But, at the same time, one can often feel him talking through you, as opposed to talking with you.

This is only magnified on TV. While Obama has tried to limit his use of big venues in recent months — with the obvious exception of his acceptance speech before 75,000 people in Denver — he still has struggled to move from the perception of a man who speaks down from on high as opposed to the man sitting with you, hearing you.

Indeed he might want to take a lesson from the problems of Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis’s presidential debates in 1988. The Democratic nominee had been hammered about his stand on crime by Vice President George H.W. Bush’s campaign, as helmed by Lee Atwater. So Dukakis sat down for debate prep with House Majority Whip Tony Coelho and a young George Stephanopoulos.

Before the second debate, they talked to Dukakis about the importance of putting emotion ahead of an intellectual response. Coelho, in an interview this afternoon, remembered how they warned Dukakis that he was sure to get a question about what would happen if a member of his family was a victim of violence.

“I said ‘Be a damn Greek’,” Coelho said. “I told him, ‘Get fucking mad. Say, ‘I’ll fucking kill the bastard.’ Whatever you do, don’t begin by talking about policy and the system.”

Things, as you probably remember, didn’t go according to the script. With the first question, the CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?”

“No, I don’t, Bernard,” Dukakis said. “And I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We’ve done so in my own state.”

Coelho said that he and Stephanopoulos had done a high five after hearing the initial question, ready to declare victory. Then they heard their man’s response. Dukakis had showed a disconnect not only with the American voter but with the human race at large.

Bush could have announced he was Iron Man and planned on defending the country by flying through the sky with boot rockets, and it wouldn’t have mattered. Dukakis lost the day — and lost big when Americans cast their ballots.

“Does he come tonight as the law professor or the next door neighbor?” Coelho said. “That’s going to be the key. If he comes to the debate as the law professor — as Michael Dukakis did — he will lose the debate. He’s smarter than hell; and he really understands what’s going on. But sometimes he can come across as aloof, arrogant. There are a lot of words people use for it — and he can’t come that way tonight.

“Get out of the textbooks,” Coelho said, ” Talk to me as a neighbor. Don’t go for the brain. Go for the heart. How does he do that? It’s in his language. When he’s asked a question, he doesn’t start analyzing. He gives a human response, he shows his emotional side first and then the legal, policy side second.”

But haven’t we had enough, after two terms of Bush, of the guy we want to drink with?

“I think the thing with George Bush is that people didn’t feel he was intellectually curious, but the felt he had inner peace,” Coelho, who served as chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, said. “They thought Al Gore was intellectually curious but did not have inner peace. Now, with John McCain they know he’s intellectually curious. He’s not dumb. People want a switch. They want a break from the Republicans and Bush. The problem is they don’t know Obama.”

Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary for the Clinton White House, agreed with Coelho’s “coolness” assessment. In many ways that aspect, his ability, to paraphrase Kipling, to keep his head about him when everyone around him is losing his, is a “rear-view asset,” something we come to admire only after the great crisis has come and gone. But now, before him, is a crisis of grave consequence — something Obama can easily lay at the feet of the current administration, and by extension McCain.

Thus Obama’s task is two-fold: Show a command of national security to a satisfactory level, stripping McCain of that card, and harness the nation’s collective anger. “Given we’ve got 30-some days till the election,” Myers said, “people are still waiting for him not to get angry but show real passion, show that he’s working on behalf of ordinary Americans.

“He also needs to call McCain out for what he is,” Myers continued, “the poster-child for deregulation. Say you believe in free markets, but with oversight. Say human nature being what it is, John McCain and the Republicans let the inmates run the place and this is what you got. Be clear on the specifics. Be clear on the ideological differences.

“We’re at the crossroads here,” Myers said. “People will be presented with two competing visions of America, two competing visions of the future, and ideologies. And they’re going to pick one. This is not an article in the Harvard law review.”

With the tonight’s debate, we can finally see the the men alone. It probably won’t be as entertaining as “The

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