Trail Mix: The Final Debate

Eighteen days and counting, Obama maintains the lead

The third and final presidential candidate debate Oct. 15 between Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama was not the game-changing event Republicans had hoped it would be. But the good news for McCain is that by many political analysts’ and observers’ accounts, it was his best showing yet. He was vintage McCain, the maverick reformer who relishes a comeback fight, and was on point and relentless in his attacks on his opponent. The bad news is that after a hard-hitting final round, not much has changed in this year’s race for the White House. Obama continues to hold his lead in battleground states from Colorado to Virginia by a margin of 1.2% to 8.1%, and although McCain may have won the debate, Obama definitely didn’t lose.

If that doesn’t make sense, it may be because political pros and the average Joe view such events through different lenses. “For the first 45 minutes, it was McCain’s debate. He was in command and winning,” says Michael Tanner, a Cato Institute senior fellow. “Obama seemed to be more on the defensive during the first half and was doing a lot of explaining. There’s an old adage in politics that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. It’s always best to be the guy making the attacks than the guy having to defend yourself.”

But somewhere around that mid-way point, McCain grew testy. He was hurt that Obama wouldn’t apologize for comments Georgia Rep. John Lewis made linking his campaign tactics to segregationist Gov. George Wallace, and morphed into what Tanner calls “the grumpy old guy.” That’s the final and lasting image that voters were left with, which may explain why in flash polls conducted after the debate they deemed Obama the winner.

Eighteen days can seem like an eternity to voters who just want Election Day to come and go so that the nation can begin to move forward, but it’s more like a lifetime in the span of a political campaign. So, where do the candidates go from here?

“As the phrase goes, I think Obama should keep on keeping on. He has clearly, through the debates, convinced some skeptics that he’s safe or at least safe enough as a choice for president,” says William Galston, a Brookings Institution senior fellow. “And his temperament and demeanor have worn very well with swing voters-better than a lot of us might have perceived. After eight years of decisions based on gut instincts, the idea that the next president might be inclined to look before he leaps is pretty attractive.”

But the Obama campaign cannot take his lead for granted, Galston warns. And the campaign must be sure to nail down the 270 Electoral College votes needed to win the election and focus especially on states that might be more of a stretch later. Larry Berman, a University of California-Davis political scientist, doesn’t think that will be a problem. After trying to find enough McCain-friendly states to get the Republican to that magic number, he concluded that the numbers just

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