It could hardly have been closer. My final score for the debate was 14.6 for John McCain and 14.3 for Barack Obama. In essence it was a tie. The debate was notable for two things which were absent. It was widely predicted that McCain would attack Obama’s controversial associates, such as Bill Ayers, Tony Rezko and Rev. Jeremiah Wright. In fact, their names never came up. Nor did Sarah Palin’s. Again, it was widely expected that her readiness would be debated. Her name was never mentioned.
The Loyola Marymount Debate Score Sheets I use are pretty straightforward. The candidates are judged on four criteria: Clear; well organized; factual and relevant. So they were very close when they stuck to the question. If they wandered, they lost points.
For example, the candidates were asked to rank their issue priorities between energy, health care and entitlement programs. McCain ranked all three, but Obama ranked education and skipped the entitlement portion. Maybe he misunderstood the question, but he addressed an issue that simply wasn’t part of the question.
When another question focused on how to deal with entitlements, McCain talked about fixing Social Security. He said, “It’s easy,” and talked of the bipartisanship of Ronald Regan and Tip O’Neill on the same issue 25 years ago. But he offered no specifics on how it would be easy to fix. So McCain lost points there.
The LMU scoring system (as I interpret it) seems fairly objective on focusing on the issues raised in the questions. Where it is perhaps less clear is on the subtleties. For example, during a question on how they would handle Pakistan, Obama criticized McCain for singing a song at a town hall meeting, which went, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” McCain correctly pointed out - and the widely played video demonstrates - that the song was in jest. “I was joking with an old vet friend, who was joking with me about Iran.” So, taking a candidate out of context cost a debater points as well. It’s about the clarity criterion.
McCain, on the other hand, was hurt by his organization. He often stumbled when beginning his answers. He tried to quote Teddy Roosevelt by saying “Walk softly….talk softly….” By muffing the quote, it lost its impact. So he was docked points there.
I felt both men had excellent closing statements, and I scored them dead even. They were asked to address what they don’t know. “What I don’t know, is what the unexpected will be,” McCain said. “I do know what it’s like in dark times,” he added with obvious reference to his years as a Vietnamese POW.
“It’s the challenges that you don’t expect that consume most of your time,” Obama said in his answer. He spoke of his single parent mother, of the help his grandparents gave in raising him, and of the hard times, such as living on food stamps. “Despite this, I was able to go to the best schools on earth,” he added about his optimism for America. As I said, both closing statements by the candidates came from the heart and were personal. That scores well.
So ultimately who won? Well, McCain is behind in the polls, and he needed a stronger win tonight. With one more debate next Wednesday, he needs a bigger victory to reverse the trend.
The problem for McCain continues to be a sinking economy that so far shows no signs of bottoming out or of turning around. McCain put forth a unique idea tonight, trying to change the momentum. He suggested that the Secretary of the Treasury buy up all the bad home loans in the nation and renegotiate better terms for the homeowners, preventing foreclosures. “It’s my proposal,” McCain said. “It’s not Senator Obama’s proposal. It’s not President Bush’s proposal.”
Whether that idea resonates with voters remains to be seen over the next 28 days. I’ll be there watching and writing at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.