Judge: Bob Dalrymple
Scores: McCain 81 | Obama 76
Senator John McCain of Arizona scored a clear win against Senator Barack Obama of Illinois in the third and final debate of the 2008 presidential election. He accomplished this by being the sharper and more aggressive competitor, while his opponent sought largely to deflect arguments, rather than land any significant punches of his own.
This debate demonstrates the importance of stripping out of the broader political context from an adjudication. McCain and Obama had different objectives last night. Behind in the polls, McCain needed to land a “killer blow” whereas Obama merely had to avoid large mistakes. In that context, the Obama camp is probably happier this morning. Stripped of that context however, and viewed raw, McCain won the debate.
McCain’s aggression allowed him to carry the economy section of the debate, which he had failed to do on the previous two occasions. He was able to frame the discussion on taxes, which put him on solid ground. His invocation of Joe the Plumber allowed him to ground and personalise an abstract issue. He avoided being tagged with argument by anecdote, by clearly and crisply explaining his tax plans.
Obama did better in his attempt to tie McCain to the Bush administration, and also in his attacks about negative campaigning. McCain’s defence to the former charge was partially effective, as he contrasted his own record of breaking from his party with Obama’s claimed slavish loyalty to his own party line. The negative campaigning charge stuck, however, and McCain’s response was weak. Using military wives as a shield looked more than a little craven.
Obama sought to attack McCain’s choice of running mate by contrasting the experience of his own choice, Joe Biden with Sarah Palin’s perceived lack of same. McCain took the more direct approach, and hammered some of Biden’s past foreign policy pronouncements. In debating terms, this was very effective.
McCain also attacked Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers, using Hillary Clinton’s prior attacks on the same topic as cover. Ultimately, Obama’s strategy of deflection worked very effectively on this point and neutralised the issue.
McCain debated effectively on energy, picking apart the vagueness of Obama’s position on offshore drilling. The healthcare debate descended into farce somewhat, as both candidates sought to address “Joe the Plumber” directly to sell their plans. The abortion question produced little, if any, clash.
The final topic, education, produced some interesting policy clash, however. McCain sold his vouchers policy effectively. Obama praised the DC schools superintendent, which allowed McCain to trip him up badly by pointing out that she supported the vouchers scheme.
In terms of Manner, McCain was the more aggressive performer. This would normally equate to being the better performer, but at times he risked seeming angry. This impression was exacerbated by the seated format of the debate, which may lead the viewer to expect a more placid and conciliatory approach. Obama’s more laid-back approach showed a greater command of his physical surroundings, but limited his capacity to land wins on the arguments. On Manner, then, a broad tie.