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The Candidates’ Debate: Expectations

The devil’s hit an iceberg: I find myself in agreement with David Broder.

Looking back at the performance of the two men during their primary debates, the proposition that they are evenly matched looks quite plausible.

We’ve been waiting with great anticipation for Barack Obama to chew up Grampa Abe Simpson in Friday night’s first matchup. I don’t think it’s to be.

Here’s why. Broder again (I know, I know — revoke my prog-blog-credential, but still….):

Obama did not win the Democratic nomination by dominating the debates. In the early ones, when the stage was full, he lacked the verbal or physical tools to stand out from the crowd. More often than not, it was Hillary Clinton or John Edwards who made the strongest impression on the cameras and the audience. And when Clinton and Obama met one on one, she won most of the confrontations and the subsequent primaries.

I came away from every spring head-to-head thinking, "Well, he did better that time." There’s no question that Obama improved as a debater — up against Hillary Clinton, how could he not get better? Is there a politician with a better grasp of the facts, details, and pocket lint of any issue than Hillary Clinton? Say what you will about how she ran her presidential campaign, but the woman Knows. Her. Stuff. 

That’s not the same challenge John McCain presents; the challenge he presents is different. But John McCain can be formidable. And we shouldn’t forget it.

John McCain’s been a part of the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body for more than two decades. He’s visited more countries than there are countries anymore. He’s met more foreign leaders than Richard Nixon did. He vividly recalls Czechoslovakia. He never confuses Shia and Sunni, especially when his buddy Joe Lieberman is nearby.

No, no — stop. This week can’t be about mocking John McCain’s likely performance. We’ll have next week (and the rest of the campaign) to lambaste his actual performance, but only if we manage our own expectations this week. And help others manage theirs.

It’s time to change our anticipation of this debate from eagerness to dread. We need to stop saying, "Just wait until the first debate!" to all our friends who haven’t really paid attention.

This week, when Americans’ attention turns to the presidential election — many of them for the very first time, if you can imagine! — it’s our job to ensure that people don’t expect too much from our guy.

Let people know you’re worried:

"Gosh, Barack didn’t do so well in the debates I watched last year in the Democratic primary, I can’t imagine he’ll do very well against McCain…."

Be sure people know McCain knows his stuff:

"McCain’s been in the Senate since Ronald Reagan was President! Obama can’t possibly know more than he does."

Let people know McCain’s prepared for this his whole life:

"John McCain was in presidential debates eight years ago — he knows what he’s doing. And he won his party’s nomination this year in the debates."

Remind everyone who Obama lost to in earlier debates:

"Hillary Clinton probably beat Barack in every one-on-one debate, and John McCain’s been debating in the Senate a lot longer than she has."

Explain how Obama’s style doesn’t really fit well into a debate format:

"He thinks on his feet, and explores ideas as he debates. But McCain has mastered his policies and views, and is very certain after a long time in public life, especially in foreign policy."

Did you watch the Saddleback Church & Store™ forum? Everyone thought Pastor Rick produced a clear winner:

"The only time they’ve been on the same stage to talk about the campaign, Obama didn’t do very well."

Let people know this debate is in McCain’s wheelhouse:

"McCain’s speciality is foreign policy. Obama will do better in the other debates, but McCain will win this one."

That’s our simple personal campaign talking point for this week, firepups. You are likely the wise one in your circle, especially about what to expect from Friday’s candidates’ debate. (Practice in front of a mirror to keep a straight face, if you must.) But — go forth and disseminate this idea everywhere you gather around the water cooler, in every doctors’ office waiting room, on all the barstools you find your butt parked, in every blog you comment on, at every supermarket line you wait in: John McCain will win this debate.

There will be plenty of time to take the lads’ advice in the song: "Laugh about it — shout about it."

But next week.

{YouTube of Simon & Garfunkel at The Concert in Central Park, from ronakosu}

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