News Release: Faculty Experts, Politics

Oct. 16,  2008

Presidential Debate: McCain Fails to Land Blows

In Wednesday's presidential debate, America learned a lot about a man named Joe and saw candidates Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama face off one last time. Despite a strong start, Emory University debate expert Melissa Maxcy Wade says McCain lost traction and allowed Obama to take it all, despite a more muted performance.

"Consistent and steady has been Obama's mantra throughout the debates. In the last one, he was a little more flat and professorial, but at that point, he just needed to get through it," says Wade, executive director of forensics as head of Emory's Barkley Forum and one of only three university debate coaches in the United States who has served on the National Associated Press Presidential Debate Evaluation Panel for every U.S. presidential election since 1976,

In the first 20 minutes, "McCain did well, was very solid. He had a symbol for who he wanted to target in Joe the Plumber, who became an amazing metaphor for the middle class," Wade says. It was when the questions about negative campaigning and the VP selections were asked that "McCain veered off course and didn't get back."

Obama was able to offer a solid rebuttal to questions aboaut his association with William Ayers, Wade says. "He made it look like McCain was launching blows in the air and landing nothing." And for the vice presidential question, Obama was respectful when talking about Gov. Sarah Palin, while McCain didn't have the same respect for Sen. Joe Biden, she says.

Unlike previous Democratic contenders, "who tended to bludgeon you over the head with facts and figures," Obama used evidence sparingly, and often in a way that was counterintuitive, such as citing how the national Chamber of Commerce, which doesn’t often support Democratic policies, warned that McCain's plan threatened the unraveling of the health care system, Wade says.

"That was extremely efficient debating and made points that were hard for McCain to untangle," she says.

Overall, Wade says "the best actor in the debate was moderator Bob Scheiffer, who was the finest moderator I've ever seen in my decades of debate watching." With the campaign headed into its final weeks, Wade sees a clean sweep for Obama in the presidential debates. As for the vice presidential debate, "there will be academic papers written on that one."

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