Experts share observations about first debate

Saturday, September 27, 2008 | 4:11 p.m. CDT

Unsure what to make of Friday night's first presidential debate between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama? The Missourian asked several political science, communications and journalism experts at MU to help us sort it out. We'll post their observations — in their own words — as we receive them.

- Liz Lucas and Chris Dieterich

Marvin Overby, MU political science professor:

I think that both Senator McCain and Senator Obama did reasonably well last night in their first debate. Both accomplished some of the things they wanted to do in front of a national audience, and both avoided major gaffes. McCain looked vibrant and younger than his years, he appeared passionate on issues that he cares about, and he kept his temper in check, not coming across as short or mean. Obama handled the foreign policy portion of the debate well, addressing the concerns of some Americans that he is not experienced enough for the job. Both candidates did well enough to assuage the anxieties of both their base supporters and as yet undecided voters... in other words, both came across as presidential.

If I had been scoring this event simply as a stand-alone debate, I probably would have awarded the win to Senator McCain, in a close contest and on points. He was a bit sharper, aggressive without seeming the bully, marginally more impressive. But, of course, this is not a one-off event, but part of a larger, longer campaign. Seen from that perspective, Senator Obama was probably the overall winnner. He's ahead in the polls, and nothing happened last night that is likely to threaten that. He stood toe-to-toe with McCain on foreign policy matters, his opponent's forte, and looked calm, collected, reassuring, presidential.

Last night's debate did little if anything to alter the overall arc of the campaign ... in that regard, the evening went to Obama.

Mitchell McKinney, MU professor of communication:

Friday night's debate gave supporters of both Senators Obama and McCain enough to take away in order to claim victory for their candidate. Neither candidate committed any major gaffe or blunder that will prove fatal to their campaign.

John McCain was ready tonight with his repeated attempts to call into question Barack Obama's expertise in foreign affairs, suggesting numerous times that Senator Obama "doesn't seem to understand" or "he just doesn't get it." For some, and particularly those still undecided, these McCain quips might be interpreted as much too condescending or the more senior McCain scolding his more junior colleague.

At times, Barack Obama seemed more willing to directly challenge John McCain, with McCain preferring to level his charges against his opponent through Jim Lehrer rather than directly confronting Obama. As the debate wore on, however, McCain seemed to warm to the challenge and became more comfortable with direct attacks against Obama.

McCain seemed strongest with his discussion of eliminating pork barrel spending and earmarks, and also in citing his experience dealing with foreign leaders and his knowledge of international conflicts. In fact, it was about half way through the debate when discussion turned to foreign policy that McCain became a much stronger debater. McCain was perhaps weakest in his ability to distance himself from the Bush administration and the many "foreign policy failures" that Obama suggested McCain had supported.

Obama began the debate as the more forceful and decisive debater, taking it directly to McCain. Also, Obama was much more willing to engage McCain nonverbally, turning to confront his opponent when leveling charges, while McCain throughout the evening seemed hesitant to even look at Obama when clashing with his opponent. Obama's most forceful attacks centered on the failures of the Bush foreign policy, tying these "blunders" directly to McCain. Obama's response as to which of his domestic spending priorities he would cut in order to accommodate the expected financial crisis bailout may have been his weakest response of the debate.

Overall, Debate One advantage should probably be given to Barack Obama. Senator Obama demonstrated he could go head-to-head with John McCain on McCain's topic of expertise - foreign policy - without backing down or blinking.

Betty Houchin Winfield is a member of the MU School of Journalism and a specialist in political communication. She's also an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science and an affiliated professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs

Initial Impressions:

Nobody made any big mistakes. There was no big use of gotcha quips. Nobody rolled their eyes or sighed. They've learned from past mistakes. (Pundits) said Obama might seem too cold, too technocratic. That didn't happen either.


I was surprised McCain was so aggressive. He acted like Obama was an enemy, and it bothered me. I think McCain's patronizing attacks were made in a way that seemed tactical.

What would an undecided voter think?

Obama seemed more fair, like he'd reach across the aisle. McCain didn't seem conciliatory. It will be interesting to see how the public reacts. The public says they want (politicians) to quit fighting and reach across the aisle.

McCain played on experience, which is interesting considering the trouble we've been in and the mess we're in now with an abominable war and the status of al-Qaeda. He stressed examples over and over. "I met so and so." Why is this better? Given the results and our current trouble, it seemed illogical to stress experience.

For some people it is enough to have been in those countries. What about the result?

McCain sounded like he's rooted in the past, (Obama) looked more able to look into the future, like there can't be just one way to see the world.

The economy?

They certainly didn't come up with anything specific, and answers were pretty tenuous. I think a lot of that is calculated so they don't throw some kind of a glitch into the package going through Congress.

What about the format?

Jim Lehrer said people had time limits and didn't cut it off. I found it irritating. At least in the primary debates the candidates were cut off. But it was also more natural, where the moderator got them started on issues.


Both used a lot of personal stories. McCain's had the "did not fight in vain" ring. Obama's had the "don't let this happen to another mother." Obama's had an underling message, I think, How can you be strong abroad when you're weak at home?

Both showed knowledge. Both had prepped and were prepared.

Who won?

People always are going to ask who won. Maybe the American people won to see the two candidates like this. I think it was the first example where it's clear their differences on issues like taxation and the Iraq war.

Other thoughts?

I thought it a bit ironic the debate was at Ole Miss, a center during the Civil Rights era. I thought it was rather lovely for the first viable African-American candidate to debate there.

Was this a memorable debate?

I think what's memorable is the context of the debate. We're fighting two wars in a horrible economy. More than anything that is pretty memorable.


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Charles Dudley Jr September 27, 2008 | 5:55 p.m.

The debate was great there is no doubt but as alot are saying and the polls are showing Obama was the winner of that one.
Now in the coming debates we shall see who has the best policies as their individual policy lay outs are outlined on both of the candidate's sites as is required I think by the Presidential Nomination Committee to conform to certain standards of campaigning. I could be wrong on that but in past elections it has been done that way.
The question all citizens should be asking themselves is on which candidate's site are you not seeing all of the issues outlined and why?

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