Top national debate coaches say John McCain needs to make vast improvements if he wants to best Barack Obama in the final presidential debate on Wednesday — and based on his performance in the two debates held so far, they’re skeptical that the old dog is willing to learn any new tricks.
While Obama appeared “steady and consistent” in their encounters, McCain seemed “aimless,” said Emory University debate coach Melissa Maxy Wade.
Reaction polls taken during and immediately after both debates showed that respondents in general, and undecided voters in particular, favored Obama.
“Nobody who is coaching McCain would tell him to say ‘my friends,’” said pollster and former national debate champ Matt Towery. “It looks like John McCain is not receiving any professional training from coaches.”
McCain is in fact coached by one of the best in the county, even if that coaching hasn’t been evident in his performances.
McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rodgers confirmed that Brett O’Donnell, the former coach of Liberty University, is the Arizona senator’s “only debate coach,” though all of McCain’s senior policy advisers are involved in debate prep.
Since coming to Liberty in 1993, O’Donnell turned Jerry Falwell’s Baptist College into a national debating powerhouse whose previously inexperienced debaters held their own with highly recruited students from more academically prestigious schools.
“He ran a really, really good program,” said Wake Forest debate coach Allan Louden, who has prepped Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). “He was most successful at taking novices and making them great debaters, and that’s what political candidates are, novices.”
Those skills got O’Donnell noticed in the small world of conservative debate coaches and led to Karl Rove's tapping him to prepare President Bush for his 2004 debates against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).
Under O’Donnell’s tutelage, Bush showed “marked” improvement in his debates, especially in terms of offering specific and clear responses to Kerry’s attacks, “that showed [O’Donnell’s] influence,” said Louden.
Top national debate coaches, though, say that McCain made many easily corrected mistakes in the first two debates.
McCain “meanders through the substance of his arguments,” often “getting lost and having to revert back to simple themes,” University of Kansas debate coach Scott Harris said.
Harris added that McCain has allowed Obama to “look more knowledgeable” by simply delivering “clearer arguments.”
While Obama is widely perceived to be a more gifted speaker than McCain, the Democrat was “very rough in the primary debates,” Wade said. “He had an idea about what he wanted to say but didn’t have the concise language to say it.”
But having emerged from the crucible of 23 primary debates, he has “found his groove” in the general election campaign, according to Wade. “There was a lesson in every one of those debates, and he internalized them.”
Obama’s general election debate performances have demonstrated classic signs of coaching, said the debate experts, such as enumerating his answers, using McCain’s arguments to make his own points, and pivoting quickly from the question that was posed to the question he’d prefer to answer. The Illinois senator is also much quicker to offer facts and statistics than McCain.
And Obama smiles whenever McCain attacks him, making him look “more agreeable … [and] more reasonable,” Wade said.
McCain, the debate experts said, has been making classic mistakes that could be fixed.
During both debates, the Arizona senator has struggled both to clearly argue his own point and to reut those of his opponent, despite 16 primaries of his own to hone his performance.
“Part of the trick in coaching candidates is to have them get to the damn point,” Louden said. “Whatever you can say in five minutes, you can say better in 30 seconds.”
Harris agreed, adding that McCain has also done a poor job of pointing out weaknesses in Obama’s arguments. “He needs to characterize Obama’s arguments as platitudes rather than solutions,” he said, a tact Hillary Clinton frequently employed during the later primary debates.
The responses by Obama and McCain to the first question posed in the first presidential debate demonstrated both Obama’s skills and McCain’s weaknesses.
Asked by moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS about the financial recovery plan then being debated on Capitol Hill, Obama answered first, laying out a concise and organized argument.
Obama’s argument started with his outrage over the situation, mapped out what he wanted in the bill and finished by tying McCain to the causes of the financial crisis.
“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,” Obama said.
Enumerating his answers, Obama laid out his proposals.
“Number one, we’ve got to make sure that we’ve got oversight over this whole process; $700 billion, potentially, is a lot of money. Number two, 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,” and so on through four points.
He closed with a hard hit at McCain:
“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 Sen. 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.
"It hasn't worked. And I think that the fundamentals of the economy have to be measured by whether or not the middle class is getting a fair shake. That's why I'm running for president, and that's what I hope we're going to be talking about tonight.”
McCain then made many of the same points, but in a digressive fashion that was considerably harder to follow.
The Arizona senator started by expressing sympathy for “Americans who are facing challenges,” then said the legislative package “has transparency in it,” without explaining how or why this should matter to those being hurt by the crisis. McCain then jumped into a statement lauding the bipartisan nature of the bill before adding that House Republicans “weren’t a part of the negotiations.”
McCain concluded by saying, “We’ve got a lot of work to do. And we’ve got to create jobs. And one of the areas, of course, is to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil,” points that he did not previously introduce and did not tie to the financial crisis.
McCain also failed to take advantage of answering second to respond to Obama’s Bush-McCain economic policy line.
The disheveled delivery was matched in last week’s town hall debate by an equally disconcerting style, as McCain walked around the stage seemingly without purpose.
What appeared to be an effort to make contact with the live audience meant frequent camera shots of the back of his head — and of awkward interactions with audience members.
“It was crazy, he was walking around aimlessly,” Louden said.
McCain was seen by the debate experts as more effective in his visual presentation in the first debate, when both candidates were behind podiums, but even then, pundits thought his unwillingnes to look at Obama, despite Lehrer’s frequent requests that the candidates speak directly to each other, made him appear cold and angry.
That may have been the result of over-coaching, said Lounden, which made McCain both look and feel uncomfortable, prompting him to revert to the town-hall style in which he appears most at ease.
“You don’t change people in a few debate sessions,” Louden said. “He probably just said ‘the heck with it, I’m just going to do what makes me comfortable.’”
Wade speculated that McCain is “much harder to coach because he has been at this so long,” adding that he may be resistant to changing from his town-hall style because he’s often used his “wit and charm” to earn a “free pass in answering questions.”
Harris agreed, saying that “the whole maverick renegade image he portrays probably makes him hard to coach because he wants to be his own man and do what he wants to do.”