A too-close-to-call debate

In a debate that both candidates could ill-afford to lose Friday night, neither did. John McCain proved he was resolute and tough; Barack Obama demonstrated that he was smart and polished. And in this case, a tie could be said to favor either. Polls before the event showed that most voters believed Obama would win, so he may have fallen most short of expectations. But Friday’s topic was foreign policy, where McCain enjoys his strongest credentials. Fighting to a draw in his favored area may suggest that he came up short, especially after a week in which he slipped in the polls and struggled to regain his footing.

On Iraq, the evening’s central question, Obama can rightly claim the wisdom to have opposed the war from the start, and to have urged greater attention to Afghanistan at a time when America’s commitment to Iraq robbed that conflict of needed resources and attention. And yet, McCain scored points by pointing out his politically dangerous decision to support the “surge,” which has resulted in solid military progress. Similarly, Obama explained his view of constructive engagement with Iran; McCain warned of that regime’s ominous potential.

If they traded points on substance, the two men clashed more viscerally on style and on their approaches to one another. Indeed, for all the talk of race and gender in this year’s historic campaign, Friday’s much-anticipated contest was more vividly a contest of generations. It was a debate, mostly civil though occasionally cranky, between a tough old man and a polished young one. McCain revealed more of himself in that arena, wincing and grimacing during the split-screen shots while Obama was speaking.

That dynamic threaded its way through the emotional highlights of the event. Time and again, McCain, who is 72 and would be the oldest man ever elected to a first term, condescended to Obama, who is 47 and one of the youngest ever to win his party’s nomination. “He doesn’t understand,” McCain said repeatedly. Discussing Obama’s willingness to engage in talks with Iran without preconditions, McCain said: “It isn’t just naive. It’s dangerous.”

Obama declined to be belittled. Although McCain refused to address him directly -- despite encouragement from moderator Jim Lehrer -- Obama looked at and spoke to McCain. Obama often credited McCain on issues -- a grace that was not reciprocated -- but he did not accept the role of junior candidate.

Friday’s debate was the first of three, not including next week’s contest between the vice presidential candidates. As such, it is an opener, not a closer, and it felt like it. The debate did not saddle either candidate with a gaffe, much less eliminate one from contention. It showed that John McCain is clear-eyed about the threats to America, and that Barack Obama has the capacity to lead.