The Third Presidential Debate: Highlights


The Third Presidential Debate between Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee John McCain, was held October 15, 2008 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. Bob Schieffer of CBS News moderated the debate which focused on domestic issues and the economy.

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain face off at Hofstra University (Photo: Damon Winter / The New York Times)

Barack Obama and John McCain face off at Hofstra University

The Stats

  • Mediacurves: 60% of Independents say Obama won, 30% say McCain, 10% called it a tie
  • A CBS poll of uncommitted voters: 53% of voters say Obama won, 22% say McCain.
  • CNN debate poll: 58% of voters say Obama won, 31% say McCain
  • Polls October 14, 2008: General Election: McCain vs. Obama – Real Clear Politics, 10-14-08
  • Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby: Obama has four-point lead on McCain: 48 percent to 44 – Reuters, 10-13-08

In the News…

Senators Barack Obama and John McCain before their third and final debate at Hofstra University. (Photo: Todd Heisler/The New York Times)

Barack Obama and John McCain before the debate

Candidate Soundbites

  • Full Transcript Download

    On Joe the Plumber

  • McCAIN: No. I would like to mention that a couple days ago Sen. Obama was out in Ohio and he had an encounter with a guy who’s a plumber, his name is Joe Wurzelbacher. Joe wants to buy the business that he has been in for all of these years, worked 10, 12 hours a day. And he wanted to buy the business but he looked at your tax plan and he saw that he was going to pay much higher taxes. You were going to put him in a higher tax bracket which was going to increase his taxes, which was going to cause him not to be able to employ people, which Joe was trying to realize the American dream. Now Sen. Obama talks about the very, very rich. Joe, I want to tell you, I’ll not only help you buy that business that you worked your whole life for and be able — and I’ll keep your taxes low and I’ll provide available and affordable health care for you and your employees. And I will not have — I will not stand for a tax increase on small business income. Fifty percent of small business income taxes are paid by small businesses. That’s 16 million jobs in America. And what you want to do to Joe the plumber and millions more like him is have their taxes increased and not be able to realize the American dream of owning their own business.
  • OBAMA: He has been watching ads of Sen. McCain’s. Let me tell you what I’m actually going to do. I think tax policy is a major difference between Sen. McCain and myself. And we both want to cut taxes, the difference is who we want to cut taxes for…. Now, the conversation I had with Joe the plumber, what I essentially said to him was, “Five years ago, when you were in a position to buy your business, you needed a tax cut then.” And what I want to do is to make sure that the plumber, the nurse, the firefighter, the teacher, the young entrepreneur who doesn’t yet have money, I want to give them a tax break now. And that requires us to make some important choices. The last point I’ll make about small businesses. Not only do 98 percent of small businesses make less than $250,000, but I also want to give them additional tax breaks, because they are the drivers of the economy. They produce the most jobs.
  • McCAIN: You know, when Sen. Obama ended up his conversation with Joe the plumber — we need to spread the wealth around. In other words, we’re going to take Joe’s money, give it to Sen. Obama, and let him spread the wealth around. I want Joe the plumber to spread that wealth around. You told him you wanted to spread the wealth around. The whole premise behind Sen. Obama’s plans are class warfare, let’s spread the wealth around. I want small businesses — and by the way, the small businesses that we’re talking about would receive an increase in their taxes right now.
  • On Taxes

  • OBAMA:So, look, nobody likes taxes. I would prefer that none of us had to pay taxes, including myself. But ultimately, we’ve got to pay for the core investments that make this economy strong and somebody’s got to do it.
  • McCAIN: Nobody likes taxes. Let’s not raise anybody’s taxes. OK?
  • OBAMA: Well, I don’t mind paying a little more.
  • McCAIN: The fact is that businesses in America today are paying the second highest tax rate of anywhere in the world. Our tax rate for business in America is 35 percent. Ireland, it’s 11 percent.
  • On the Economy

  • OBAMA: We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don’t work. And I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page, programs that don’t work, we should cut. Programs that we need, we should make them work better.
  • McCAIN: OK, what — what would I cut? I would have, first of all, across-the-board spending freeze, OK? Some people say that’s a hatchet. That’s a hatchet, and then I would get out a scalpel, OK? Because we’ve got — we have presided over the largest increase — we’ve got to have a new direction for this country. We have presided over the largest increase in government since the Great Society. Government spending has gone completely out of control; $10 trillion dollar debt we’re giving to our kids, a half-a-trillion dollars we owe China. I know how to save billions of dollars in defense spending. I know how to eliminate programs.
  • On President Bush

  • OBAMA: We need to eliminate a whole host of programs that don’t work. And I want to go through the federal budget line by line, page by page, programs that don’t work, we should cut. Programs that we need, we should make them work better….
    So one of the things that I think we have to recognize is pursuing the same kinds of policies that we pursued over the last eight years is not going to bring down the deficit. And, frankly, Sen. McCain voted for four out of five of President Bush’s budgets. We’ve got to take this in a new direction, that’s what I propose as president.
  • McCAIN: I am not President Bush. If you want to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago. I’m going to give a new direction to this economy and this country. Sen. Obama talks about voting for budgets. He voted twice for a budget resolution that increases the taxes on individuals making $42,000 a year. Of course, we can take a hatchet and a scalpel to this budget. It’s completely out of control. The mayor of New York, Mayor Bloomberg, just imposed an across- the-board spending freeze on New York City. They’re doing it all over America because they have to. Because they have to balance their budgets. I will balance our budgets and I will get them and I will…
  • On the Negative Campaign

  • McCAIN: Well, this has been a tough campaign. It’s been a very tough campaign. And I know from my experience in many campaigns that if Senator Obama had asked — responded to my urgent request to sit down and do town-hall meetings and come before the American people, we could have done at least 10 of them by now. When Senator Obama was first asked, he said anyplace, anytime — the way Barry Goldwater and Jack Kennedy agreed to do before the intervention of the tragedy at Dallas.
    So I think the tone of this campaign could have been very different. And the fact is, it’s gotten pretty tough, and I regret some of the negative aspects of both campaigns. But the fact is that it has taken many turns which I think are unacceptable. One of them happened just the other day, when a man I admire and respect — I’ve written about him — Congressman John Lewis, an American hero — made allegations that Sarah Palin and I were somehow associated with the worst chapter in American history: segregation, deaths of children in church bombings, George Wallace. That — that, to me, was so hurtful.
    And Senator Obama, you didn’t repudiate those remarks. Every time there’s been an out-of-bounds remark made by a Republican, no matter where they are, I have repudiated them. I hope that Senator Obama will repudiate those remarks that were made by Congressman John Lewis. They’re very unfair and totally inappropriate. So I want to tell you, we will run a truthful campaign. This is a tough campaign. And it’s a matter of fact that Senator Obama has spent more money on negative ads than any political campaign in history, and I can prove it.
    And Senator Obama, when he said — and he signed a piece of paper that said he would take public financing for his campaign if I did. That was back when he was a long-shot candidate. You didn’t keep your word. And when you looked into the camera in a debate with Senator Clinton and said, “I will sit down and negotiate with John McCain about public financing before I make a decision,” you didn’t tell the American people the truth, because you didn’t. And that’s — that’s — that’s an unfortunate part. Now we have the highest spending by Senator Obama’s campaign than any time.
  • OBAMA: All right. Well, look, you know, I think that we expect presidential campaigns to be tough. I think that if you look at the record and the impressions of the American people — Bob, your network just did a poll showing that two-thirds of the American people think that Senator McCain’s running a negative campaign versus one-third of mine. And 100 percent, John, of your ads — 100 percent of them — have been negative…. A hundred — it — it absolutely is true. And — and — now, I think the American people are less interested in our hurt feelings during the course of the campaign than addressing the issues that matter to them so deeply. And there is nothing wrong with us having a vigorous debate, like we’re having tonight, about health care, about energy policy, about tax policy. That’s the stuff that campaigns should be made of. The notion, though, that because we’re not doing town-hall meetings, that justifies some of the ads that have been going up not just from your own campaign directly, John, but 527s and other organizations that make some pretty tough accusations — well, I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks.
  • On William Ayers, a 1960s-era radical, and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN:

  • McCAIN: Mr. Ayers, I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist. But as Sen. Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship. We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.
  • OBAMA: Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Sen. McCain’s campaign over the last two or three weeks. This has been their primary focus. So let’s get the record straight. Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. … Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that’s Mr. Ayers. Now, with respect to ACORN, ACORN is a community organization. Apparently what they’ve done is they were paying people to go out and register folks, and apparently some of the people who were out there didn’t really register people, they just filled out a bunch of names. It had nothing to do with us. We were not involved.
  • On Their Running Mates’ Qualifications:

  • McCAIN: Well, Americans have gotten to know Sarah Palin. They know that she’s a role model to women and other — and reformers all over America. She’s a reformer.
  • OBAMA: On the key issues that are of importance to American families, Joe Biden’s always been on the right side, and I think he will make an outstanding president if, heaven forbid, something happened to me.
  • On whether their rival’s vice presidential picks are qualified to be president:

  • McCAIN: I think that Joe Biden is qualified in many respects. But I do point out that he’s been wrong on many foreign policy and national security issues, which is supposed to be his strength. He voted against the first Gulf War. He voted against it and, obviously, we had to take Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait or it would’ve threatened the Middle Eastern world supply. In Iraq, he had this cockamamie idea about dividing Iraq into three countries. We’re seeing Iraq united as Iraqis, tough, hard, but we’re seeing them. We’re now about to have an agreement for status of forces in Iraq coming up. There are several issues in which, frankly, Joe Biden and I open and honestly disagreed on national security policy, and he’s been wrong on a number of the major ones.
  • OBAMA: That’s going to be up to the American people. I think that, obviously, she’s a capable politician who has, I think, excited the — a base in the Republican Party. And I think it’s very commendable the work she’s done on behalf of special needs. I agree with that, John. I do want to just point out that autism, for example, or other special needs will require some additional funding, if we’re going to get serious in terms of research. That is something that every family that advocates on behalf of disabled children talk about. And if we have an across- the-board spending freeze, we’re not going to be able to do it.
  • On Late-Term Abortions

  • OBAMA: With respect to partial-birth abortion, I am completely supportive of a ban on late-term abortions, partial-birth or otherwise, as long as there’s an exception for the mother’s health and life, and this did not contain that exception. And I attempted, as many have in the past, of including that so that it is constitutional. And that was rejected, and that’s why I voted present, because I’m willing to support a ban on late-term abortions as long as we have that exception.
  • McCAIN: Just again, the example of the eloquence of Sen. Obama. He’s … health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, health. But, look, Cindy and I are adoptive parents. We know what a treasure and joy it is to have an adopted child in our lives. We’ll do everything we can to improve adoption in this country. But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn.
  • On Education:

  • OBAMA: I do think that it is important for the federal government to step up and help local school districts do some of the things they need to do. Now we tried to do this under President Bush. He put forward No Child Left Behind. Unfortunately, they left the money behind for No Child Left Behind. And local school districts end up having more of a burden, a bunch of unfunded mandates, the same kind of thing that happened with special education where we did the right thing by saying every school should provide education to kids with special needs, but we never followed through on the promise of funding, and that left local school districts very cash-strapped.
  • McCAIN: Now as far as the No Child Left Behind is concerned, it was a great first beginning in my view. It had its flaws, it had its problems, the first time we had looked at the issue of education in America from a nationwide perspective. And we need to fix a lot of the problems. We need to sit down and reauthorize it. But, again, spending more money isn’t always the answer. I think the Head Start program is a great program. A lot of people, including me, said, ‘Look, it’s not doing what it should do.’ By the third grade many times children who were in the Head Start program aren’t any better off than the others. Let’s reform it. Let’s reform it and fund it.

Senator Hillary Clinton at the debate
Senator Hillary Clinton was in the audience of the presidential debate. (Photo: Damon Winter/The New York Times)


Historians’ Comments

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian on “Getting to know the candidates”: A little bit. But I think my overwhelming feeling is that, if Barack Obama is elected president 20 days from now, his performance in all three of these debates is going to have a lot to do with the reason.
    Because, you know, you go back to John Kennedy in 1960 or Jimmy Carter in ’76, Bill Clinton in 1992, these were candidates who were not very well-known to the American people at the beginning. They were challenging people who were the candidate of the party that owned the White House.
    And they used these debates, one by one, to basically let the American people feel comfortable with them, with the idea of them as president. A lot of Americans who may have agreed with Barack Obama were nervous about him before these debates began; I think there are very few people tonight who will feel that way. – PBS Newshour, 10-15-08
  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS on “Antagonism favors a cool Obama”: I think John McCain really hurt himself, because one feature of these debates is that, when a candidate really tries to go on the attack, especially in a personal way, almost always hurts himself.
    Remember when George H.W. Bush, who was a rather gentlemanly guy, out of frustration against Bill Clinton began saying, “I just don’t know about a guy who demonstrated on foreign soil against the United States, made this mysterious visit to Moscow,” it only diminished him, made him look almost desperate.
    It didn’t help Bob Dole in 1996 when he tried to do the same thing in the debates against Bill Clinton. So one of the things about not only these debates, but especially this format where you have the two of them sitting at a table, I just don’t know how a candidate can bring up things like that, that are pretty negative and antagonistic and, in a way, not hurt himself with a lot of voters. – PBS Newshour, 10-15-08
  • Gil Troy “MIA in the Debates: Obama the dreamer, McCain the Hero”: While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls. But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero. This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically. – HNN, 10-15-08
  • Alan Schroeder “Debate expectations high for John McCain”: “This is one of his last opportunities to mix things up, and literally his last opportunity to confront Obama in a direct way,” said Alan Schroeder, a Northeastern University professor and presidential debate historian. “This is his chance to get his mojo back.”
    “Two debates ago, I’d have said he needs to turn up the heat,” Schroeder said. “But his low-key performance has served him well. There’s so much turmoil in the world, being a cool and unflappable customer benefits him.” – Boston Herald, 10-15-08
  • Julian E. Zelizer “The Final Throw-Down Can Obama Be Reagan Tonight?”: “It’s pretty dull, but this is how Obama closes,” said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “There’s no drama to his campaigning. He gets the lead and he holds it. What we saw during the primaries was his calmness, his coolness, the ability to run out the clock. And you’re seeing a very similar thing now.” – Washington Independent, 10-15-08
  • Sheri Parks “Debates drawing big TV audiences in Baltimore Large number of black households helps propel combined ratings to highest in U.S.”: “The reason, of course, is Barack Obama, who has made it possible for African-Americans to hope again,” said Sheri Parks, an associate professor of American studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, who specializes in the study of media, pop culture and African-American families. “Many African-Americans, and I am one of them, did not expect to see this in our lifetimes, an African-American who could be president, and you are not going miss any chance to see him on television.” – Baltimore Sun, 10-15-08
John and Cindy McCain with Barack and Michelle Obama after the debate ended. (Damon Winter/The New York Times)

McCain and Obama, after the debate


The First Presidential Debate: Highlights


The first presidential debate was held September 26, 2008 at the University of Mississippi, moderated by Jim Lehrer of PBS, with the main focus on foreign policy.

Senators John McCain and Barack Obama. (Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times)

The Stats

In the News…

Candidate Soundbites

  • Full Transcript Download
  • On the Economy

  • OBAMA: So we have to move swiftly, and we have to move wisely. And I’ve put forward a series of proposals that make sure that we protect taxpayers as we engage in this important rescue effort.
    No. 1, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got oversight over this whole process; $700 billion, potentially, is a lot of money.
    No. 2, we’ve got to make sure that taxpayers, when they are putting their money at risk, have the possibility of getting that money back and gains, if the market — and when the market returns.
    No. 3, we’ve got to make sure that none of that money is going to pad CEO bank accounts or to promote golden parachutes.
    And, No. 4, we’ve got to make sure that we’re helping homeowners, because the root problem here has to do with the foreclosures that are taking place all across the country.
    Now, we also have to recognize that this is a final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down.
  • MCCAIN: But the point is — the point is, we have finally seen Republicans and Democrats sitting down and negotiating together and coming up with a package….
  • MCCAIN: As president of the United States, I want to assure you, I’ve got a pen. This one’s kind of old. I’ve got a pen, and I’m going to veto every single spending bill that comes across my desk. I will make them famous. You will know their names.
  • OBAMA: Well, Senator McCain is absolutely right that the earmarks process has been abused, which is why I suspended any requests for my home state, whether it was for senior centers or what have you, until we cleaned it up. And he’s also right that oftentimes lobbyists and special interests are the ones that are introducing these kinds of requests, although that wasn’t the case with me…. Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important… And over time, that, I think, is going to be a better recipe for economic growth than the — the policies of President Bush that John McCain wants to — wants to follow.
  • MCCAIN: Senator Obama suspended those requests for pork-barrel projects after he was running for president of the United States. He didn’t happen to see that light during the first three years as a member of the United States Senate, $932 million in requests.
  • MCCAIN: Senator Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate. It’s hard to reach across the aisle from that far to the left….
  • MCCAIN: How about a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs…. I think we ought to seriously consider with the exceptions the caring of veterans national defense and several other vital issues.
  • OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you’re using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn’t make sense.
  • MCCAIN: Well, I want to make sure we’re not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama’s health care plan. I want the families to make decisions between themselves and their doctors. Not the federal government. Look. We have to obviously cut spending. I have fought to cut spending. Senator Obama has $800 billion in new spending programs. I would suggest he start by canceling some of those new spending program that he has.
  • OBAMA: John, it’s been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending.
  • MCCAIN: It’s well-known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate nor with the administration. I have opposed the president on spending, on climate change, on torture of prisoner, on – on Guantanamo Bay.
  • On Iraq

  • MCCAIN: The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind. That’s the decision of the next president of the United States. Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it would increase sectarian violence, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program he said it exceeded our wildest expectations. But yet, after conceding that, he still says that he would oppose the surge if he had to decide that again today. Incredibly, incredibly Sen. Obama didn’t go to Iraq for 900 days and never asked for a meeting with General [David] Petraeus.
  • OBAMA: John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. 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. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni and you were wrong.
  • MCCAIN: I’m afraid Sen. Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy…. And this strategy, and this general, they are winning. Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq.
  • OBAMA: That’s not true…. I absolutely understand the difference between tactics and strategy. And the strategic question that the president has to ask is not whether or not we are employing a particular approach in the country once we have made the decision to be there.
  • On Iran

  • MCCAIN: My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well. Now we cannot a second Holocaust. Let’s just make that very clear. What I have proposed for a long time, and I’ve had conversation with foreign leaders about forming a league of democracies, let’s be clear and let’s have some straight talk. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council.
  • OBAMA: So obviously, our policy over the last eight years has not worked. Senator McCain is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. It would be a game changer. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in this Middle East.
  • On Geoorgia and Russia

  • OBAMA: Well, I think that, given what’s happened over the last several weeks and months, our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated, because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region. Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable. They were unwarranted. And at this point, it is absolutely critical for the next president to make clear that we have to follow through on our six-party — or the six-point cease-fire. They have to remove themselves from South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It is absolutely important that we have a unified alliance and that we explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship.
  • MCCAIN: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama’s reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, “Both sides ought to show restraint.” Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a “K,” a “G,” and a “B.” And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior…. Now, I think the Russians ought to understand that we will support — we, the United States — will support the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in the natural process, inclusion into NATO.
  • On Terrorism

  • MCCAIN: But I can tell you that I think America is safer today than it was on 9/11. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a long way to go. And I’d like to remind you, also, as a result of those recommendations, we’ve probably had the largest reorganization of government since we established the Defense Department. And I think that those men and women in those agencies are doing a great job. But we still have a long way to go before we can declare America safe, and that means doing a better job along our borders, as well.
  • OBAMA: Well, first of all, I think that we are safer in some ways. Obviously, we’ve poured billions of dollars into airport security. We have done some work in terms of securing potential targets, but we still have a long way to go.
  • MCCAIN: The consequences of defeat, which would result from his plan of withdrawal and according to date certain, regardless of conditions, according to our military leaders, according to every expert, would lead to defeat — possible defeat, loss of all the fragile sacrifice that we’ve made of American blood and treasure, which grieves us all. All of that would be lost if we followed Senator Obama’s plan to have specific dates with withdrawal, regardless of conditions on the ground.
  • OBAMA: Oh, there’s no doubt. Look, over the last eight years, this administration, along with Senator McCain, have been solely focused on Iraq. That has been their priority. That has been where all our resources have gone. In the meantime, bin Laden is still out there. He is not captured. He is not killed. Al Qaida is resurgent.

Bloopers / Humor

  • Check Point: The First Debate – NYT, The Caucus, 9-26-08
  • LEHRER: Say it directly to him.
    OBAMA: I do not think that they are.
    LEHRER: Say it directly to him.
    OBAMA: Well, the — John, 10 days ago, you said that the fundamentals of the economy are sound. And…
    MCCAIN: Are you afraid I couldn’t hear him?

Historians’ Comments

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian on “Obama strategy unexpected”: To save my life, if I had to quote to you a line from the last 90 minutes, I’d have a hard time. And that’s pretty unusual, if you think of presidential debates.
    And, you know, what surprised me was this. I thought that Barack Obama was fully credible, and nuanced, and sophisticated, fully credible as a commander-in-chief tonight.
    But, you know, he was in a position where he could have attacked John McCain on three of the things that are very tough for a presidential candidate, an unpopular president of your own party, an unpopular war, and an economy that is going south very fast and has yet to be fixed.
    Yet despite all of that, for a lot of this debate, John McCain was repeatedly on the offensive and, to some extent, Obama was on the defensive. I was surprised by that.
    In terms of strategy, we’ll see what works. But oftentimes in debates, if a candidate does go on the offensive, it does tend to work. That’s what Kennedy did in 1960. It’s what Ronald Reagan did in 1980. And it is what Bill Clinton did in 1992.
    So I think, you know, you can certainly question the strategy, but those were two potential commanders-in-chief out there tonight. – PBS, Newshour, 9-26-08
  • Alan Brinkley on Last Night’s Debate: I doubt the first debate will make a decisive difference. There were no “There you go again” moments and no terrible blunders. Both candidates stuck to their talking points, and there was nothing very new about the debate other than the opportunity to contrast the two men more vividly than has been possible before. On the substance, I think Obama won, but not by much. He had a crisp and effective answer to the key question about the economy. McCain floundered and ended up talking about earmarks, as if he were running for the Senate. On the war, while I think Obama was correct in what he said, McCain seemed more confident.
    But substance, as we should know by now, has never been the chief determinant of how the public evaluates debate. From John Kennedy to Al Gore, most debates have been more important for style than substance, and for likeability than intelligence. And that is why this debate seems to me to be something close to a wash. McCain on the whole looked confident and avuncular. Obama seemed intelligent and articulate. McCain sometimes appeared too a ggressive and angry, and Obama sometimes was too cool and professorial. Fortunately for McCain, his “suspend the debates” stunt–which could have been portrayed as (and in reality was) an embarrassing failure–seemed to play no role in last night’s debate. But I do think that barring some startling turnaround in the next few weeks, the economy will continue to dominate the campaign–and McCain remains the weaker candidate on that issue. – The New Republic, 9-27-08
  • Richard Norton Smith on “Past debates show pitfalls, opportunities”: “Obama has to put people at ease that if a call came in at 3 o’clock in the morning that he would know what to do, and that’s not a terribly high bar to cross,” said Richard Norton Smith, a presidential historian at George Mason University. “A draw will not only be perceived as a victory in public terms — for the rest of the campaign it will focus the campaign on domestic issues.” – Politco, 9-26-08
  • Julian Zelizer on “John McCain: I’ll be at the debate — Obama and McCain to face off Friday night in Mississippi”: The first and most important thing that people judge is always how the candidates appear and their physical demeanor rather than what they actually say. – NY Daily News, 9-26-08
  • Chad Israelson on “Obama, McCain Take Center Stage”: “People like a winner and if someone emerges tonight and really does well, it can be the kind of thing where the other person never really catches up,” says RCTC History Professor Chad Israelson. –, MN, 9-26-08
  • David Sansing on “The Choice of Ole Miss to Host Tonight’s Debate Sends a Message to the World: Here We Go Again” “I think what we have here is really a confluence of two lines of history, where you have a new Ole Miss, a postracial Ole Miss, and you have a postracial black candidate running for president,” said David Sansing, professor emeritus of history at the university. “Nowhere in America could these two forces reinforce each other as they do here at Ole Miss.” – Stop the ACLU, PA
  • Gil Troy: The Debates: Sweat the Small Stuff, It Can Sway the Election: So I, like most of my fellow Americans, will watch these debates on two levels. I will really, really try to follow the sometimes extremely technical exchanges. This will be particularly important this year because both candidates have responded to the recent financial meltdown with superficialities and demagoguery. I would love to hear a more detailed and substantive discussion between them, so I can learn about how they understand the Wall Street chaos and what they plan to do about it. Moreover, having just written a book on the importance of moderation, “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents,” I will be hoping to hear signs of centrism (in fact, student volunteers from McGill will be monitoring the debates on our website to assess how moderate the various statements are)….
  • Reviewing the presidential debates since 1960 – CNN, 9-25-08

The week that was….

  • September 26, 2008: 7 subpoenaed Palin aides fail to show up for hearing into her possible abuse of power … Georgian president thanks Biden for flying to Tblisi to show support during Russian invasion … Groups want Texas governor to extend voter registration deadline in Ike-hit counties … – AP, 9-27-08
    First presidential debate is on as McCain agrees to participate … Biden meets Georgian president without reporters during opening photo opportunity … David Letterman commiserates with Paris Hilton over McCain ‘disses’ … Palin says she will donate money from those implicated in federal corruption probe – AP, 9-26-08
  • September 25, 2008: Democrats, some Republicans question the impact of McCain’s intervention in bailout talks … Alaska legislators say McCain campaign moving on ‘many fronts’ to stall Palin probe … With agreement between Congress and administration unfinished, debate prospects questionable … – AP, 9-26-08
    McCain optimistic at news of agreement in principle, no change in debate status … Palin defends claim that living so close to Russia makes for foreign policy experience … Biden chokes up at Pa. rally recalling Steelers’ kindness during tough time for his family … Palin kept donations from tainted Alaska politicians, including one she urged to step down – AP, 9-25-08
  • September 24, 2008: Obama, McCain make political moves on crisis even while saying politics should play no part … Palin says US could be facing another Great Depression if Congress doesn’t act … Sarah Palin received blessing in 2005 to keep her free from ‘witchcraft’ – AP, 9-25-08
  • September 23, 2008: Days before debate on foreign affairs, Biden says McCain often wrong about security issues … McCain seeks bailout opinions from Romney, business executives while in New York … Poll finds 18 percent of voters are up for grabs, economy the key to getting their support … Obama making big push to flip reliably Republican Indiana, while McCain camp stays low key … Source says Freddie Mac paid $15,000 a month to lobbying firm of McCain campaign manager – AP, 9-24-08
    Palin meets her first world leaders in a tightly controlled diplomatic debut in New York … Obama says Wall Street bailout must protect Main Street, stands by tax-cut plans … McCain says his support for bailout would be contingent on five principles … Obama begins three days of debate preparations … Poll: Obama’s backing from Clinton supporters stuck at same levels as in June – AP, 9-23-08
  • September 22, 2008: Obama says massive financial bailout probably would delay his spending initiatives … Poll: Obama’s support from former Clinton supporters stuck at same levels as in June … Clinton says Democratic win in 2008 should be obvious, given GOP policies … For Palin, meet-and-greet time with world leaders at UN session in NY – AP, 9-23-08
    Obama pledges deep cuts in spending to fix economy … McCain calls for greater oversight of proposed financial bailout plan … Stars of ‘American Chopper’ surprise McCain with a motorcycle – AP, 9-22-08
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