Thursday, September 25, 2008

For Obama: Don't Mess Up; McCain: Be Nice


Let's assume John McCain decides to debate tomorrow. Assume that he won't be the kid who doesn't study for the big test and has been covertly practicing his laugh lines undercover.

The twist on whether this debate will occur Friday at 6 p.m. pacific is the attention it has built. The nation's focus on this election is frenetic. The controversy over McCain's gamesmanship could make this one of the most watched presidential debates ever.

Here's what viewers should look for during tomorrow's debate in Oxford, Miss.:

1. Make Obama mad.
Make no mistake about it, Obama has a large ego. His oratory brilliance is based upon his comfort in speaking rhetorically. Have you ever chatted with a college professor? No matter your expertise on the subject, you will always leave feeling less sure about your opinions. The McCain campaigns highlighting of this fact is fair and will try to exploit his air of superiority.

James Fallows, writing in The Atlantic, watched on this year's primary debates in one whole week. He lives in China and for readers of the magazine, his numerous features on China have made The Atlantic seem more like The South China Sea Monthly. Here he describes Obama's irritability when questioned:

Obama “is vain about his idealism and ‘nobility,’” a staff member for one of Obama’s Democratic opponents (not Clinton) told me on the phone. “He is thin-skinned about having his motives and competence questioned, so that’s what you do.”...Obama may still be innocent enough to be shaken by it. McCain made many dismissive references to Obama after Obama became the presumptive nominee. The easy next step is to do so while looking at him.

An article posted this week on quotes a McCain staffer that says the candidate will be looking for certain keywords in Obama's speech that could be exploited.
Advisers have told Sen. McCain to watch out when Sen. Obama uses the phrase, 'As I've said before...' One McCain adviser said it is used 'when Obama actually changes his position, to pretend it's what he's always said.'
The article also gives Obama specific tips for winning the debate. Three of the fear tips highlight things Obama should not do. Usually the candidate ahead in the polls, as Obama is, merely needs to play defensive and "not lose" to win.
  • Don't act like a professor
  • Don't ramble on both sides of a question
  • Don't use sarcasm or flip answers that could be misinterpreted.
  • Show your passion
2. Make McCain Old And Grumpy
It's no secret that McCain's temper is legendary on Capitol Hill. In Bob Woodward's recent book on the Bush White House McCain is quoted using quite salty language that falls just short of the king of presidential pottymouths, Richard Nixon.

You can assume McCain will be on his finest manners Friday night although, as mentioned in an earlier post, the lopotomy given to McCain's vivid personality has also made him less adventurous and adroit in public. Sort of like they gave him a Zanax to cool it down.

The aspect of this debate that neither can candidate can control is how the youthful Obama contrasts on high-def with the 72-year-old McCain. It may not be a slip of the tongue that causes viewers to see McCain as old and crotchety, but his natual appearance.

Fallows attempted to relate this point to Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale in 1984.
He will look and sound old and weak next to Obama. Ronald Reagan was about McCain’s current age when he ran for reelection against Walter Mondale, but Reagan looked 10 years younger than McCain does now. Obama is 10 years younger than Mondale was and looks younger still. McCain must hope that he can apply a version of Reagan’s line about his opponent’s “youth and inexperience.” But lacking Reagan’s outward haleness, he risks coming across like Dole against Clinton.
Here's what the Wall Street Journal says McCain needs to do to win:
  • Stop saying, "My friends". It's a verbal crutch destined for a drinking game.
  • Just because he doesn't know something, it's not neccesary to point it out so bluntly.
  • Without much practice, he might be nervous, don't let that be interpreted as "testy".
3. Win The Expectations Game
The Great Debater, George W. Bush, "won" a majority of his debates against Al Gore and John Kerry based on this premise. The Obama campaign is wise to this as evidenced by a quote in today's USA Today that says McCain has the edge in the first debate that deals with foreign policy.

It will be hard for the Obama people to blunt the perception that their candidate is the far superior statesman even though, while he has improved significantly in the format, it is not his most impressive talent.

What could happen is Obama could raise expectations if he is able to relax and fight. For a frontrunner this could be risky and could also knockout a teetering McCain. Fallows looked closely at Obama's 2004 Senate debate with conservative Alan Keyes. While the dorky Keyes was nothing but a warm body for the GOP, the Obama of 2004 was an attack dog, throwing biting one-liners and totally within is own comfort zone.
The Obama of the presidential debates seemed to be enduring the sessions; the Obama who took on Alan Keyes seemed to be having fun. When attacking Keyes’s background and ideas, which he did frequently, he sounded wry rather than ponderous or angry. He didn’t seem to mind needling or attacking Keyes, or seem upset when Keyes attacked.
Of course, what either candidate has to say and how they say it will be important, but many times these debates are won and loss on the public's perception and how well or badly each candidate gives credence to certain prevailing wisdom--Obama that he's "uppity" and McCain that he's old.

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