Intimate format offered intensity, contrasts
First, the answer to the most pressing question raised in last night's presidential debate: Joe the plumber was, indeed, watching the proceedings from his Ohio home. And a good thing, too, because a decent amount of the rhetoric was directed, quite literally, to him.
The aspiring business owner - who was captured on video challenging Barack Obama's tax policies last weekend - was a useful tool for John McCain, who brought him up first, referred to him as "my friend," and said, at one point, "Hey Joe, you're rich! Congratulations!" As the night wore on and the name kept coming up, Obama gamely announced, "I'm happy to talk to you too, Joe, if you're out there."
Joe's virtual presence last night added an element of lightness to a faceoff that was, at times, almost uncomfortably tense.
The final debate of the campaign, three weeks before Election Day, was a high-stakes affair, especially for McCain. Most pundits agreed beforehand that the Republican, trailing in most polls, faced great pressure to act both aggressive and restrained.
For those purposes, last night's intimate format helped. Unlike the first debate, in which the candidates stood uncomfortably at podiums - or last week's town hall forum, in which they wandered awkwardly around the stage - here the men were allowed to sit and relax a bit. Moderator Bob Schieffer, perched beside them, was a milder presence than his predecessors Jim Lehrer and Tom Brokaw; he avoided goading them into confrontation (really, he didn't have to) and didn't seem too fixated on the clock.
McCain came out swinging from the outset, dropping one of the night's more memorable statements early on: "Senator Obama, I am not President Bush. If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago."
More than Obama, he veered into the personal, saying his feelings were hurt when Representative John Lewis of Georgia compared some McCain supporters' anti-Obama rhetoric to the racist diatribes of Governor George Wallace.
And much more than Obama, McCain was aggressive and edgy, challenging his rival's policies and making pointed digs, even as he purported to reject negativity: "I don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist" was his way of bringing up Obama's association with William Ayers.
Obama stayed calm throughout the barrage and had a ready answer for everything, from the specifics of his vote on a late-term abortion ban to the political situation in Colombia, where McCain pointed out Obama had never been. Here was a time when the networks did well by offering a split-screen look; much of the time, when McCain launched a new line of attack, Obama's first response was to break into a broad smile. At a couple of points, he laughed out loud.
Whether viewers will perceive Obama's demeanor as cool or slightly smug is another question. Some networks' instant polls suggested that Obama fared well. CNN's efforts to gauge the debate in real time, which turned an HD screen into a sea of buttons and graphs, yielded no great insight. The real-time reaction of "uncommitted Ohio voters" barely swerved negative for either candidate, and when it did, the reactions were confounding: Men didn't seem to like it when Obama said he wanted to spend the next three weeks talking about the economy. What, then, do they want to talk about?
More baffling was the running scorecard from CNN analysts that lined the screen's edges, as commentators gave the candidates positive and negative points. Again, the result was less insight than amusement: compared with some colleagues, David Gergen barely marked his scores at all. When the debate was over and he started to offer his thoughts, it was a relief to see he had been watching after all.
Several of the pundits came through with praise for McCain, but Joe - last name Wurzelbacher - emerged as the night's breakout star. Soon after the debate ended, the Associated Press had tracked him down and CBS anchor Katie Couric was interviewing him by phone. The only question left is who will play him on "Saturday Night Live."
Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.