- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

When all is said and done, it was a draw.

As former senior McCain adviser Mike Murphy told David Gregory of NBC/MSNBC after the debate, “No game-changer: We’re going to have a rematch.”

For Sen. John McCain, however, a tie seemed like a good outcome compared with the previous few days.

Said a McCain team adviser, quoted in Mike Allen’s column in Politico on Saturday: “The debate was a tie, but it turned the page from our erratic handling of the bailout negotiations. A ‘McCain sunk the economy with a political stunt’ narrative is now ancient history. Now we get an improved bailout deal, calmer markets, and praise from House conservatives. We’re here back even and live to fight another day.”

I expected the John McCain who showed up at Ole Miss to be unprepared, tired, frazzled - and looking and acting like all of the above.

I was wrong.

Mr. McCain impressed me greatly all night - his civility, his dignity, his presidential demeanor. He started out by expressing concern for the great Democratic liberal lion, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who had been hospitalized.

He was strong and serious, yet not overbearing. He was tough on the issues and in contrasting his positions with those of Sen. Barack Obama - but respectful in his references to Mr. Obama (though, oddly, he seemed not to ever look directly at Mr. Obama, as Chris Matthews seemed to point out 56 times in 10 minutes of post-debate commentary).

Mr. Obama’s low point was when he tried to explain why he had said, in answer to a question asked during an early debate in the Democratic primaries, that he would be willing to meet with the five dictators of Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and North Korea “without preconditions … in the first year of his presidency.” (That was, in fact, the precise question, to which Mr. Obama answered simply, “I would.”)

Mr. Obama has many times since explained that what he meant to say was he believes in negotiations with hostile governments and didn’t mean his answer to be interpreted literally.

But Mr. McCain pressed the point, and Mr. Obama tried to say that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger agreed with his position on U.S.-Iran discussions without preconditions. However, Mr. Kissinger over the weekend made the obvious point that this involved diplomats below the level of the president himself.

Mr. McCain repeated the line “Senator Obama doesn’t understand” a few times too many. The problem with the phrase, which was used to reinforce the argument that Mr. Obama is inexperienced and not ready to be president, is that Mr. Obama came across exactly the opposite: steady, knowledgeable, decisive, confident, presidential.

A potentially embarrassing post-debate factoid about Mr. McCain put out by the Obama operation has been to remind voters that Mr. McCain not once during the 90-minute debate used the term “middle class” (leading to an overnight ad by Mr. Obama’s rapid-response team titled “Zero”). On the other hand, the McCain campaign points out that Mr. Obama never used the word “victory.”

As for Mr. Obama’s performance, during the primaries when I was a strong supporter of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, there were often times that he seemed unsure of himself, halting in his speech, sometimes indecisive - at least in the early Democratic debates.

Not any more - and certainly not Friday night. Mr. Obama was better than I have ever seen him. He clearly bettered Mr. McCain during the early exchanges on the economy.

He was more specific with facts on his tax cuts benefiting 95 percent of those earning under $250,000 a year - reinforcing populist themes that the polls show are gaining traction, especially in the middle of popular outrage over a proposed bailout of $700 billion in taxpayers’ money to rescue some investment bank executives from poor business decisions.

Even on foreign policy, Mr. Obama sometimes seemed to have the upper hand in the area of Mr. McCain’s strength. The high point was Mr. Obama’s repeated use of the word “wrong” to describe Mr. McCain’s early support for going to war in Iraq - “wrong” about weapons of mass destruction, “wrong” that the U.S. would be greeted as liberators, “wrong” about not foreseeing the inevitable civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites, “wrong” about Iraq (rather than Afghanistan) being a prime theater to attack al Qaeda.

But Mr. McCain had an effective counter, pointing out that Mr. Obama had finally admitted that the “surge” in Iraq had been a success after months of denying it.

Bottom line about the performance of both men (forgive me for quoting my own words from my first column in this space, explaining the chosen theme “Purple Nation”):

“In Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, we have two candidates - honest, independent-minded, with high integrity and respect for each other - who, if they mutually are determined, can get our politics back into the fact-driven solutions business …

“During the coming campaign, both can engage in an honest debate between liberal and conservative approaches, or a mixture of the two, that informs the American people about the tough choices that must be made to solve our nation’s most difficult problems …

“With such an honest debate about real choices from our two presidential candidates in 2008, the country will be better informed and ready for the challenges that face us, no matter who wins - based on partisanship about principles and bipartisanship to find solutions.”

That is what happened Friday night.

As my oldest son, Seth, an early and dedicated supporter of Mr. Obama, put it to me after the debate late Friday: “Both of them made me proud to be an American.”

Amen. Now let’s hope the vice-presidential debate and the next two presidential debates follow the same path of honest debate and respectfully agreeable disagreement, with the American people ending up the winners.

Lanny Davis is a prominent Washington lawyer and a political analyst for the Fox News Channel. From 1996 to 1998, he served as special counsel to President Clinton. From 2005 to 2006, he served on President Bush’s five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board.

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