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Cool Vs. Crotchety

The second debate between Barack Obama and John McCain did little--in fact I would say nothing--to alter the outcome of the election. Outside of McCain's referring to Obama as "that one," which suddenly revealed the contempt he feels for the Illinois senator, there were no egregious statements that can be repeated over and over again on talk shows. What the debate proved, I think, is that Obama is becoming more comfortable with the idea of himself as president of the United States, while McCain is becoming ever more crotchety at the prospect of defeat.

Sometimes, polls ask voters to characterize candidates with a single word. The favorable word most often used to characterize Obama is "intelligent," and the unfavorable word most often used to characterize McCain is "old." That pretty much fit how the two men appeared tonight. Obama roamed around the stage gracefully. He seemed as much at home with the format as Bill Clinton did in his 1992 town hall debate with George H.W. Bush when he, too, felt victory in his grasp. Many of his answers were elegantly crafted. He would begin with empathizing with the questioner and by saying briefly how he would respond; then he would contrast his approach with McCain's; and he would conclude by elaborating on his response. The effect was to get this criticism across without seeming overly critical or negative.

McCain, by contrast, was hunched over as he left his chair.  He was halting in his answers. He repeatedly cited people and incidents-such as Theodore Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover or such as his vote on Lebanon in 1983--that would have little impact on his listeners except to reinforce the impression of his age. He was grouchy and humorless. His one attempt at humor--when he mentioned his need for a hair transplant--was misdelivered. He once again displayed little familiarity with the financial crisis, dwelling instead on earmarks and energy independence. I really doubt that anyone who gets health insurance from an employer understood how McCain's tax credit would benefit him, while Obama was very clear in explaining his health care plan.

McCain's best moments came in discussing foreign policy, but they, too, were few and far between. Most voters don't want an open-ended occupation of Iraq. They worry McCain would neglect the home front in order to fight wars overseas. Obama reinforced those doubts by focusing on McCain's decision to go to war and on the cost of the war. The one time where McCain seemed comfortable and Obama ill at ease was in discussing Russia's invasion of Georgia. Obama stumbled in describing his policy, and in the end said little that was different from McCain. That may be because he agrees with McCain's militant policy on rushing into Georgia into NATO. Or it may be that he secretly disagrees, but worries about getting to McCain's dovish left on that issue.

There will be one more debate between the candidates--on October 15 in New York--and it will be devoted entirely to domestic policy. If this debate is any indication, that will benefit Obama. There can always be surprises in elections--a gaffe, an Osama bin Laden video, an enormous wellspring of hidden racist sentiment that erupts on election day--but with this second of three debates behind candidates, the prognosis certainly looks very favorable for Barack Obama.