If you watched the last 48 hours of cable news, you would have thought that John McCain has one last desperation play: arguing that Barack Obama is an exotic foreigner who pals around with terrorists. McCain was going to give him the old Mike Dukakis treatment. But it was striking that McCain did so little to question Obama’s character or echo Sarah Palin’s cultural populist case. So, this is where the McCain campaign is stuck: Its ads will get increasingly nasty and they will hardly resemble the arguments that McCain have made in his prime time appearances. That McCain doesn’t have the courage to make these arguments himself in a debate will ultimately undermine their credibility. And more than that, Obama’s cool, centrist personae in these debates undermines their credibility.
We’ve now watched Barack Obama debate twenty times. For the first nineteen of those occasions, Obama exposed certain weaknesses. He would find himself bogged down in technical responses to questions; there was no attack or criticism that he could allow to pass unchallenged. On those previous nights, many of his responses had a mock court feel. Tonight, however, he showed clearly how much he has grown as a debater. He managed to bend questions to meet his political needs; he artfully constructed his case, while staying on the offensive. I'm not sure that I remember all of Obama's debate performances from last winter, but I don't think he ever did better than tonight.
McCain has received some better early reviews tonight. I don''t see it. He certainly had some better answers on the economy—although I’m not sure what overhead projectors have to do with the financial crisis. But I thought he was less crisp. His answers meandered. He looked older and less presidential. We'll be hearing a lot of hair transplant jokes in the next 24 hours. Watching some of the post-debate punditry, I was struck by the pans McCain received from his fellow conservatives. They exuded the frustration of people who feel like they watched the election slip away tonight.