Opinion: The John McCain/Barack Obama vibe: How will that affect tonight’s debate?


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In the end, might the winner of tonight’s opening faceoff between John McCain and Barack Obama be determined by which is better able to disguise -- or at least temper -- their mutual disregard for one another?

As we settle in to watch tonight’s much-anticipated proceedings, that’s one dynamic we’ll be watching.


Obviously, there will be many other ways to judge who excels and who doesn’t in the debate. Substance is one, theatrics another.

Thousands of journalists will scrutinize every utterance by the two presidential contenders to gauge their command of complex matters of foreign and economic policy.

Obama almost assuredly will be asked by Jim Lehrer to defend his opposition -- now almost two years ago -- to the increased deployment of American troops in Iraq. And the Democrat probably would be well served by a better answer than he’s provided in the past about the surge.

McCain almost assuredly will be asked to defend his strong reaction to the military attack Russia launched against Georgia this summer, which he termed ‘a matter of urgent moral and strategic importance to the United States of America.’ McCain can be expected to forcefully restate his case, but he probably would be well served if he refrains from repeating his ‘We are all Georgians’ line at a time when many Americans are focused on the status of their retirement funds.

The public reaction could hinge on whether one of the two men scores with a memorable quip, as occasionally has happened in past debates. One danger looms, though -- if the line comes across as obviously rehearsed, it could land with a thud.

Lacking a clear zinger, each candidate still faces imperatives on the style front. As has been widely noted of late, crisp answers are not Obama’s forte; a recent Associated Press story that stirred a lot of attention characterized his persona in some debates as ‘lifeless, aloof and windy.’

McCain benefited from such an Obama performance when he followed him onstage at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in mid-August. And McCain himself hit a stride before a friendly audience, offering an effective counterpoint to Obama by delivering a series of direct responses.

Tonight, though, the field will be more even. And, of course, they’ll be onstage together. And we’ll be intently watching the vibe between them.

McCain’s disdain for Obama as an upstart ...

... whose political career has reached a pinnacle prematurely was obvious even before his campaign began casting his every move as that of a rank opportunist. Will that side of McCain -- a brusque, contemptuous side evident at times during his primary encounters with Mitt Romney -- emerge?

If so, it likely will hurt him.

Similarly, it would not be surprising if Obama’s fuse has shortened toward McCain, given the rough-and-tumble of their battle. But somehow he must thread a needle between displaying more passion in his back-and-forth with McCain while not coming across as angry.

And he definitely must avoid the snideness evident in his ‘you’re likeable enough’ comment about Hillary Clinton in the debate right before the New Hampshire primary -- the contest he surprisingly lost, perhaps in part because of that remark.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credits: Getty Images (McCain); AFP/Getty Images (Obama)