Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 October 2008
Issue No. 917
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The homestretch

In an election that seems to change from week to week, the 2008 presidential and vice presidential debates have been anything but boring, says Anayat Durrani

Things are about to get ugly. On their last leg of the presidential race, with the White House in sight, the Obama and McCain camps have let the real mud slinging begin.

A fragile economy, financial crises, housing and credit problems -- there is much on the minds of American voters as they get ready to head to the polling booths. Sixty-one per cent of all US households watched at least one of the past two 2008 election debates, according to Nielsen.

"The debates have not changed the fundamentals of this election. We have a weak economy, an unpopular war, and a president with few supporters," said campaign and polling expert John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. "It is a tough environment for any Republican."

All the major polls show Obama leading as he heads into the final two debates. If the election were held today, they predict Obama would win the presidency. But with a few weeks to go before Election Day, the Republicans have some time to turn things around.

"The final two debates and the degree to which McCain attacks Obama will set the tone for the last two to three weeks of the campaign," said David McCuan, professor of political science at Sonoma State University in California.

In the first and only vice presidential debate on 2 October the candidates discussed everything from the economy to energy policy to foreign policy. Democratic vice presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden gave a restrained but experienced performance in last Thursday's vice presidential debate. Republican vice presidential candidate Governor Sarah Palin focussed on presenting her experience as governor and mayor as proof of her qualifications. Palin, who avoided questions, instead preferring to speak about the topics she wanted to cover, spoke in a folksy tone and often winked during the debate.

She referred to herself and Republican presidential running mate John McCain as "a team of mavericks". "We're known for putting partisan politics aside to just get the job done," she said.

Before the debate, Palin was heavily criticised for her television interview with CBS commentator Katie Couric. Palin struggled to answer questions about foreign policy, Supreme Court rulings and even which newspapers she reads. The latter, when asked twice elicited the flippant reply, "All of them."

"Palin's performance helped to re-solidify her position as McCain's running mate," said assistant professor of political science Tracy Osborn, who studies women in American politics at the University of Iowa. "When she first started on the campaign trail a couple of months ago, people were excited and loved her speech at the Republican convention. Since then, however, she's looked inexperienced and uninformed, particularly in some nationally televised interviews."

Osborn said her performance was "good enough" during the debate, that it helped reassure concerns by some in the Republican Party of McCain's choice for vice president. "For Democrats, it probably didn't have much of an effect, because they don't like her anyway, and she did make a few mistakes. For independents, it's hard to say."

During the debate Biden focussed his attack on John McCain saying, "he has been no maverick on the issues that matter to people's lives." Biden likened McCain to Bush saying, so far, McCain's policy "is the same as George Bush's, and you know where that policy has taken us."

The first presidential debate was held on 26 September as talks over the government's bailout proposal took centre stage. McCain at first suspended his campaign, sticking with his "country first" mantra, to focus on the financial crisis. By debate day, he said he thought Congress had made enough progress for him to participate in the debate. The first presidential debate was supposed to be about foreign policy, but focussed mainly on the economy.

McCain characterised Obama as a candidate who "doesn't understand" the major issues America faces. Obama struck back likening McCain to President Bush on many issues. Addressing arguably the most important issue for voters, Obama said the economic crisis is the "final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain."

On Iraq, McCain attacked Obama for not going to Iraq for 900 days and never meeting with General David Petraeus. He also criticised him for not backing the surge, an increase of about 30,000 troops to Iraq in early 2007, or admitting that the US was winning the war in Iraq.

"John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007," Obama fired back. "You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong."

During the first debate many analysts noticed that McCain looked angry and would not make eye contact with Obama. Obama, on the other hand, looked more relaxed and looked directly at McCain when he spoke.

"The first debate, according to most observers, was 'won' by Obama, but it did not appear to hurt McCain," said presidential politics expert Cary Covington of the University of Iowa. "In the end, this was a bad outcome for McCain because national security is considered to be his strongest asset, so if he was going to overtake Obama, he needed to do so in that debate, and he did not. Also, people noticed that he appeared angry, and wouldn't look at Obama. This raised concerns about his temperament as president. Obama accomplished his goal of 'appearing presidential'. He was calm, informed, analytical."

According to Pew, debates have been the most influential in close races, or in campaigns where the candidate ahead moved back and forth. Debates also have had the most impact in campaigns with lingering questions on personal character of either, or both, of the candidates.

"Timing of this election favours Democrats, at this point. The calendar is such that early voting and voting by mail is now occurring in many states while the Dow Jones is heading up and down," explained McCuan. "The combination of economic instability along with the availability of voters' ballots means that many folks can vote their pocketbooks early. That does not bode well for McCain at this time. His campaign is off the tracks. The only way to get it back onto the tracks is to go on the attack."

With only less than a month to go, McCuan said the McCain campaign will need to shift the focus to "character issues", attacking Obama as much as possible. Palin accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists who would target their own country" and someone who is "not a man who sees America as you see it." Obama's campaign released an ad quoting editorials that described McCain as "erratic" and "out of touch". The Obama campaign released an online documentary that attacks McCain for his involvement in the 1980s' "Keating Five" savings and loan scandal.

"We sit on the cusp of a presidential campaign that is about to turn very negative," said McCuan. "Governor Palin will be set forth to provide "red meat" to conservatives in the red states, while Senator McCain will be flying across the middle of the US attacking Senator Obama via the television and on the tarmac of the airports in just a few states."

The second debate on 7 October in Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, will be in a town hall meeting format. The third and final presidential debate will occur 15 October at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. On the road to the White House, it's all about strategy.

"McCain needs to find a way to raise enough doubts about Obama to disqualify him to be president," said Geer. "That is tough to do, since Obama is cool under fire and shows toughness. Obama just needs to continue to be presidential and focus on the economy."

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