Last debate finally becomes a debate, but not thanks to moderator Schieffer
I'm crediting instead all the complaints about the last two debates between John McCain and Barack Obama, in which both men avoided questions they didn't like and ran over time limits like a crowd of shoppers at a Christmas Eve sale.
Clearly, the format of this debate also fed interaction, as both men sat at a table within feet of each other, needing only a nod and brief word of "response?" from Schieffer to bring an energetic rebuttal.
Early on, I got the feeling this was the kind of clash that would play better for McCain over the radio than on TV. Visually, the Republican echoed all the attitudes voters have been telling pollsters for the last week or so they dislike: bitter anger, impatience, a dismissive contempt for his rival and an impatient glee in unleashing attacks he thinks might damage his opponent.
Obama on the other hand, played a safer game -- batting back the expected attacks on former Weather Underground member Bill Ayers, contentions that he wants to tax small business and John Lewis' comparison of the rhetoric during Sarah Palin rallies to racist activists during the civil rights era. But he didn't respond to some accurate complaints from McCain -- that Democratic ads have mischaracterized his stands on illegal immigration and stem cell research -- reaching for independent voters with a passionate middle-ground justification for abortion rights.
CBS anchor Schieffer mostly scored by setting the table with interesting questions and getting out of the way, interrupting only occasionally to move on when both men seemed willing to keep arguing points.
Watching part of CNN's coverage, with its controversial gauge from a sample of uncommitted voters providing real time indications of their opinion, you saw their interest rise whenever talk turned to the struggles they were facing every day, dipping when the discussion veered into campaign tactics and old history. I will break with many pundits arguing tonight that McCain's 20 references to Ohio plumber Joe Wurzelbacher was an inspired stroke -- to these ears, it felt more like a campaign tactic, particularly when the references kept coming well into the debate.
(Points to CBS News and anchor Katie Couric for nailing the first TV interview with Wurzelbacher, though she loses half those points for putting him on so late in the network's coverage that he literally was able to answer just one question on network TV)
McCain's declaration that "I am not George Bush, if you wanted to run against him you should have done it four years ago" was a line conservatives probably loved. But to those leaning toward Obama, it probably sounded like a flip sidestep.
I was surprised by the snap polls from CBS and CNN showing a big win for Obama (53 to 22 percent in Obama's favor in CBS' poll? Really?) I don't think McCain ran the table like he wanted, but he did raise his rhetorical game. Unfortunately, the bases he kept touching -- lower taxes, school vouchers, anti-abortion ideals -- were issues electrifying the GOP base with little appeal for swing voters.
By mostly keeping his calm and occasionally reaching for the independents -- even while describing GOP supporters calling for him to be killed during rallies -- Obama "won" a debate that felt much more like a vigorous clash between two skilled politicians than previous exchanges. Because they both decided it was time -- just in time for voters.
To read Couric's full interview with Joe the plumber -- who sounds an awful lot like a Republican trying to vibe with uncommitted independents to me -- click below:
AP digs him up here.
YouTube video: Plumber Joe Wurzelbacher's first encounter with Barack Obama. Click the player to start.
WURZELBACHER: Um no I wasn’t swayed either way, I mean I have a pretty good idea who I’m going to vote for but you know that’s my you know the nice thing about going into the booth is only me and the lever knows so. I think McCain did a fine job this evening I think he brought up some good points. I do like his health care and I do like his, where he stands on taxes. Obama..
COURIC: Joe, we’re gonna talk to you more on our webcast because unfortunately we’re out of time. Hold on to the phone because we’re going to come back to you.
CBSNews.com and CNET.com Webcast:
COURIC: We want to go to Joe the plumber, Joe Wurzelbacher from Toledo, Ohio, because Joe is telling me that he's got three live trucks parked outside his house--actually from Holland, Ohio, let me correct that, Joe. Was this a bit of a surreal experience, hearing your name mentioned not once, but twice, but almost half a dozen times during the course of this debate, Joe?
Mr. JOSEPH WURZELBACHER: Yeah, actually, surreal's a good word to use for it. It was--you know, I was glad I was able to act as some type of point, you know, to where they could sit there and hammer out what they both think, what they want to say. But ultimately, you know, the important part was the debate.
COURIC: And again, why don't you just reiterate quickly for us, Joe, because I want you to get back, get to your local news station where you are, how you felt about the statements made by the candidates vs. the statements you heard when they were out on the campaign trail talking to you.
WURZELBACHER: One thing I noticed that seemed like Obama changed his mind on offshore drilling, which I thought was a good move. I don't know how much he wants to do of it, I'd like to talk to--hear more about that. McCain I--made a solid--you know, McCain was solid in his performance. Obama speaks well, but the one thing that's really important, that everyone in America really need to know is, you know, talk is talk. You know, he can speak pretty, but, you know, there's got to be action behind it. We've seen McCain, we know his actions. Even if you disagree with him, at least you know where he stands. McCain--or Obama, we're not sure where he stands yet, even after his debates. Like I said, he speaks eloquently, better than I do, but I honestly, I still don't know where he stands. He's said a lot, but none of his experience has backed it up. You know, the only experience I've seen or his actions are raising our taxes, so, you know, I'm middle class. I can't have my taxes raised anymore.
COURIC: Well, he supposedly will raise taxes only on people who make over $250,000 a year. Would you be in that category?
WURZELBACHER: Not right now at presently, but, you know, question, so he's going to do that now for people who make $250,000 a year. When's he going to decide that $100,000 is too much, you know? I mean, you're on a slippery slope here. You vote on somebody who decides that $250,000 and you're rich? And $100,000 and you're rich? I mean, where does it end? You know, that's--people got to ask that question.
COURIC: Could you just, Joe, explain quickly, and then we'll let you go, how you met both of the candidates?
WURZELBACHER: I've yet to meet John McCain. Obama came to my neighborhood and my son and I were outside tossing the football, and all of a sudden he showed up, and there went our football tossing for a while. And, you know, neighbors were outside asking him questions, and I didn't think they were asking him tough enough questions, so I thought, you know, I'll go over there. You know, I've always wanted to ask one of these guys a question and really corner them and get them to answer a question of--for once instead of tap dancing around it. And unfortunately I asked the question but I still got a tap dance. Do you--almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr.
COURIC: Joe Wurzelbacher, I mispronounced your last name earlier, Joe. Maybe you should fill in on "Meet the Press," Joe. Or "Face the Nation," I should add. I know they're looking for someone on "Meet the Press," that's why I said that. Joe, hey...
WURZELBACHER: Great. I've got opinions and I, you know, and that's it. But I--you know, everyone has opinions.
COURIC: Yeah, that's for darn sure. Well, Joe, thanks so much for talking with us. I'll let you get outside to your local news reporters. And really, I really appreciate your spending some time with us tonight. And now everybody knows your name, at least, right?
WURZELBACHER: I don't know if that's good or bad, but we'll see how, you know, the future brings.
COURIC: All right, Joe, thanks very much.