Local debate experts give candidates good grades

John McCain and Barack Obama skirmished over the economy and foreign affairs last night, a debate that lacked the drama building up to the event but still left analysts with plenty to analyze.
REUTERS/Larry Downing
John McCain and Barack Obama skirmished over the economy and foreign affairs last night, a debate that lacked the drama building up to the event but still left analysts with plenty to analyze.

Last night’s presidential debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was pretty much a draw for two of MinnPost’s local debate experts, but the high school debate coach gives Obama a whisker lead.

All three say both candidates made their points confidently and competently, but how they went about it is worth discussing.

Our debate analysis team includes these three Minneapolis attorneys: Dave Lillehaug, a debate coach for Democratic candidates including Vice President Mondale and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar;  Doug Kelley, who has tutored Republican candidates including Sen. Dave Durenberger,  and Peter Nikolai, coach to St. Paul Central High School’s debate team, which took 10th in national competition last year.

Let’s start outside the political realm, with Nikolai, Minnesota Debate Teachers Association Debate Coach of the year:

Overall: “I thought that both candidates did fine. I don’t think either candidate did great. Overall, I’d probably give a slight edge to Obama. But if it turns out the polls say it is a tie I would not be surprised. I don’t’ think either side closed the deal on the election. I don’t think this debate is going to be a game changer.”

On Obama: “On economic issues, I would give Obama a slight edge. He did a great job of clashing his ideas with McCain. I thought he did a better job or of explaining why his proposals would benefit more people.” Obama rambled some times, he said, when he could have really nailed the point home, for instance “when he called McCain out for comments about bombing Iran and threatening extinction for North Korea” he kept talking and “diluted the overall message.”

On McCain: “On the foreign policy issues, I would say McCain had very consistent message: that Obama doesn’t understand these issues. I don’t necessarily know if he persuaded people of that. I don’t think Obama had a counter message.” McCain stressed his many trips to Iraq to suggest he was therefore better informed than his opponent.

On body language: McCain “wasn’t really dynamic; he wasn’t really exciting. The thing that struck me, he kept smirking through Obama’s answers and laughing at Obama’s answer occasionally. I advise my students you can get away with that once in awhile but you don’t want do that too often or you will be seen as disrespectful.”

Lillehaug, former U.S. attorney, had this to say:  

  “Both candidates can be proud. Both were near the top of their grades in terms of their command of facts and how they connected with the audience,” he said, ranking the event as one of the better televised presidential debates since their introduction in 1960. Both McCain and Obama seemed comfortable in the debater role and “excelled in communicating facts” and “there weren’t many smarmy shots,” he said, though “probably no new ground was broken.” Both candidates became more engaged as the debate went on.  

On Obama: He “made strides” in connecting on a personal level with voters. “In the first two minutes he sent a message to the middle-class people: I know what you’re going through,” regarding home foreclosures and facing winter with high fuel prices. His quiet repetitive comment “that’s not true” while McCain talked “might have become annoying” to viewers.

On McCain: Suggesting Obama doesn’t have enough experience, McCain kept repeating “he doesn’t understand.” But the point would have been stronger and been played and replayed on network television if he had turned to Obama and said: “You don’t understand,” Lillehaug said.

On body language: “When you’re under attack, the rule is to remain stolid.” But McCain’s exhibited facial tics and jaw tightening when Obama was talking about administration failures in Iraq.

What Kelly, a former assistant U.S. attorney, had to say:

Overall: “I would call it a draw. There were no gaffes. Their positions were pretty well known. Fairly predictable. Obama was strong enough to stand up to McCain and McCain made the points he wanted to make, though each camp will probably say, ‘my guy won.’

“I thought it was one of the most electrifying debates in my memory because of its timing. I can’t remember a time in which as huge an issue as the bailout has come out so close to the election.”

On Obama: He tied McCain to President Bush. “I think the 800-pound gorilla in this election is people’s dissatisfaction with this administration.” Obama did well on this point. “Obama is a cool debater. I happen to like the laidback style.”

On McCain: “One other observation: you want to show you are tough. You also have to recalibrate your style so you are not too far out of sync with your opponent. Last night I thought McCain at times was a little heavy handed and too condescending towards Obama. To the people who would have been undecided, I think some of them would have been put off by the condescension.”   

On connecting with voters: McCain was better on foreign affairs and Obama when talking about the economy.

Cynthia Boyd reports on education and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd[at]minnpost[dot]com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/28/2008 - 08:06 am.

    One of your sources opined that people might have felt that Obama used the phrase “That’s not true” too much. The problem as I see it is not the phrase, it’s McCain’s constant repetition, in TV ads as well as in this debate, of lies.

    He deliberately misrepresents Obama’s position on income taxes, for instance, as meaning that ordinary people will be hit with huge increases — as though he has never heard or read the truth, that 95% of Americans will get tax CUTS. Only the wealthy will be paying more taxes and only because the Bush tax cuts that have starved our treasury and increased inequity will be allowed to expire. McCain would continue the Bush cuts AND add additional breaks for corporate America.

    I also found McCain’s refusal to look at Obama, make eye contact or address him directly odd. Did it have a purpose?

  2. Submitted by Karl Pearson-Cater on 09/28/2008 - 10:10 am.

    I agree with the analysis in the article.

    On McCain:
    I thought he sounded a TON better than his speech at the GOP convention. More fluid and strong. But at one point it felt like he was speaking at a rally, where the way he built up his point to when a crowd would applaud with approval. Instead, it was just awkward at a debate.

    On Obama:
    I thought the way he handled McCain’s attacks was cool, calm, and collective. And I began to nocite how engaged he was looking at McCain and trying to interact with him. But at times he got a little too mellow and seemed like some strong points came across a little too soft.
    [Note: I work for MinnPost.com]

  3. Submitted by Kevin Judd on 09/29/2008 - 11:42 pm.

    My main reaction, after seeing how well Obama did, was to wonder why Obama was avoiding these debates.

    McCain challenged Obama to 10 Townhall type debates. Seeing the strides other younger, less experienced candidates (Kennedy vs. Nixon; Clinton vs. GHWBush) had made against older or more experienced candidates, particularly in the area of foreign affairs, I would have guessed Obama would clamor for more. Instead he negotiated down to 3.

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