If John McCain wants to grab an electoral victory next month, the first step in that arduous, uphill journey is to win tonight’s debate. If he can pull that off, he can lay the groundwork for another surge ahead of Obama in the national polls and possibly steal away the critical swing states he needs over the course of the next few weeks. It’s not over for Senator McCain yet, but if he doesn’t give America a strong performance tonight, his momentum will evaporate. And momentum is what he needs right now.

In the first presidential debate last month we saw a tie. That tie was more the result of McCain not performing to his fullest potential than of Obama exceeding expectations. McCain made several missteps and missed key opportunities to truly savage his opponent. But most importantly McCain was wooden and unwilling to stray too far from his script. If you compare McCain’s performance to that of his running mate, Sarah Palin, the contrast is stark. Palin engaged the audience, was charming and able to improvise, and seemed unafraid to confront Biden directly. I wouldn’t be surprised if Governor Palin forced a role reversal last week and spent some time tutoring McCain on debate technique. I hope so.

McCain has to be more at ease tonight and he has to be willing to take a chance and hit Obama hard when he sees an opportunity. The good news is that McCain has been campaigning at town hall meetings since Eve ate the apple and has much more practice at it than Obama. He would do well to throw in a barb during the debate reminding Americans that he offered to hold joint town hall meetings with Senator Obama at the beginning of the campaign and was shot down (no pun intended). But he needs to make sure that he doesn’t repeat said barb five or twenty times in the course of the debate.

He’ll need to hit on a handful of key points that must be hammered home. First, he needs to continue to remind the American public that Obama is woefully unprepared on foreign policy and point out Obama’s bountiful gaffes on this topic, as he did during the first presidential debate. This is still McCain’s greatest strength, and he shouldn’t feel like the economy overshadows it to the point that he should play it down. Every time Iraq is discussed he diminishes Obama and comes out stronger.

That having been said, McCain really needs to hit the ball out of the park on the economy tonight. He needs to make it clear to the American people that his plan of reduced federal spending and low taxes is the best way out of the super-hyped financial crisis. He should not be afraid of this plan’s simplicity; that is its strength. But to make it work, he’s going to have to make ideological arguments for conservative and libertarian economic principles, and state in no uncertain terms that he believes you and I are the experts on how to spend our own money, and allowing us to keep more of what we’ve earned is the basis of a sound economy. He needs to point out that Senator Obama’s tax plan stifles small businesses, foreign investment and discourages companies from bringing their business and capital to the United States. He needs to warn Americans that these are class-warfare gimmicks that do not address the fundamental problems our economy faces. He needs to remind them that Obama intends to balloon federal spending and grow the government, which means unequivocally that Americans will lose more freedoms.

The biggest challenge that McCain will face will most likely not come from Obama, however. This town hall debate is likely to be hostile territory for the Republican candidate, as is typically the case. Loaded questions that, while not explicitly aimed at Senator McCain, are intended to attack him, while be rife. What’s more, character attacks typically don’t play well with these hand-picked town hall audiences, and right now the campaign trail is littered with them. John Dickerson has a great article on
The Slate that discusses this, referreing specifically to the specter of the “Ponytail Guy”, a reference to the town hall debate of 1992 that hurt George HW Bush’s re-election prospects. If McCain faces criticism for his aggressive attacks on Obama’s associations with Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, he needs to hold Obama to account for his attacks on his inability to use a computer (due to war wounds) and mental stability, but he must do so with self-deprecating humor.

Because McCain knows what’s at stake tonight, I believe he will seriously step up his game and squeeze whatever advantage he can out of this debate. Bear in mind that because the last debate was a bit of a dud, we haven’t seen what kind of a bounce in the polls either of these candidates can get from a clear victory (especially if a zinger sound-byte is replayed by the media). Additionally, this is the year of election swings; McCain has already pulled off at least one comeback in the polls within a two-week period. Four weeks should a piece of cake, right?


Hariolor said...

Broad concurrence - yet let us not forget that a two week swing is, in some ways, easier than a four-week swing. Even the ostensibly more politically aware portion of the population that participates in voting is liable to forget even the most stellar of performances three weeks from now, concerned only with the latest SNL skit and the Today Show or the View's talking points of the day.

Miserable people, the whole lot of them, they'll get what they deserve, I'm afraid. Let's just hope my cynicism is ill-founded.

On the upside, I still hold onto the belief that a statistical advantage of less than about 10% for a democrat is actually equivalent to a wash in the actual election, as republicans are universally more private about their political views, less likely to participate in phone surveys (too busy parenting their children and earning money), and if they're like me, will intentionally lie to surveys solely for the satisfaction of knowing that the statistics have become a little bit less reliable as a result...

Tony Cannizzaro said...

I would concur with some of your thoughts, but must diverge on the thgought that drawing attention away from the current financial crisis through focusing on the economy is a winning strategy. If anything, this needs to be framed in the greater context of our current economic woes. A return to fiscal discipline - keeping spending and taxes low...but balanced, keeping government out of the way of the American Entreprenuerial spirit (and that is exactly how he should phrase it), and most importantly setting the record straight on our current situation.

This cannot be finger-pointing; America's left has already done that, pinning it on a Bush Administration that, for its many faults, actually tried to push some policies which may have prevented this (or at elast lessened the blow). The systemic cause of our current situation is the political agenda of liberal elites intervening in the ecomomy through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to encourage home among those that could not afford it. Loosening oversight and altering the incentives of financiers to take unwarented risks for unreasonable short-term paydays.

Certainly there is blame on both sides of the aisle policy wise, but the ideology behind our problems is quite one-sided. McCain's ability to stand up to vested interests to fight corruption should be a great asset in our current economic environment - he just needs to make people understand why.

Ben Wheat said...

When you talk about the statistical disadvantage of Democrats, you refer to my favorite demographic: the Great, Silent Majority. I agree 100% with that assessment; these people don't participate in polls, get vocal about their views or show up to rallies, but on election day THEY VOTE. A 5% lead in the polls for Obama will amount to a dead heat on election day at the very least. At this time in 2000, Al Gore was at 51% in the polls while George W Bush held only around 42% I believe. That sure changed into a horse race when the chips were down.

If/When McCain pulls off a win, what I will anticipate most highly will be the media's morose, suicidal temperment immediately following. After putting all of their effort into getting Obama elected, they will have gambled it all (most importantly their journalistic integrity, which is at this point completely lost) and won nothing.