NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Watching John McCain and Barack Obama at their second presidential debate was like watching two fighters circling each other, throwing a jab here, landing a blow there, but neither one ever delivering a knockout punch.
The trouble for John McCain, however, is that he needed one.
So if you had to say somebody lost Tuesday night, it was McCain. Because he had to win and he did not. He is the one who has to change the current trajectory of the campaign, and he did not do that.
McCain is behind in the national polls and way behind in the Electoral College vote projections. His party is lagging in voter registration in key state after key state, and in voter enthusiasm in general.
This is not entirely McCain’s fault. For years, Republicans have made the argument that they are better stewards of the economy than the Democrats are. Now, with the economy in something near free fall, that is a tough argument to make.
Every time the Dow plunges, John McCain’s political fortunes plunge with it.
McCain used what he had. “Nailing down Sen. Obama’s tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to a wall,” he said. “He wants to raise taxes. My friends, the last president to raise taxes during tough economic times was Herbert Hoover.”
“Sen. McCain, the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one,” Obama responded and said of McCain: “He wants to give the average Fortune 500 CEO a $700,000 tax cut.”
The format of the debate was a town hall meeting, but it hardly mattered. Questions were asked but often not answered, and it didn’t matter that the questioner was an average citizen rather than a professional moderator.
“How can we trust either of you with our money when both parties got us into this global economic crisis?” a woman sitting on one of the risers on stage asked.
“Well, look, I understand your frustration and your cynicism,” Obama replied.
“I can see why you feel that cynicism and mistrust,” McCain replied.
Neither explained why he felt the question showed cynicism rather than realism.
Both had an overall strategy, and both summed up their strategies nicely.
“When times are tough, you need a steady hand at the tiller,” McCain said.
“We are going to have to have the courage, sacrifice and nerve to move in a new direction,” Obama said.
McCain unveiled, without any details, a new plan for the government to buy up mortgages that people can no longer afford to pay. But mostly they went over old ground, dragging each other up and down the canvas, like two pugilists who knew each other’s fighting style. No heads snapped back, however, no eyes puffed up, and no mouths got all that bloodied.
“We rushed into Iraq,” Obama said. “Sen. McCain and President Bush suggested it wasn’t that important to catch [Osama] bin Laden right now, and we could muddle through.”
“Sen. Obama would have brought our troops home in defeat,” McCain said. “I will bring them home with victory and honor.”
At one point, McCain said: “By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary of this back-and-forth.”