Debate II: McCain Struggles To Derail Obama

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — John McCain came here Tuesday hoping the second presidential debate would help him jar loose a campaign that for the past three weeks has been about the economy, the economy and the economy.

He didn't get his wish.

Energized in his demeanor, McCain took his case to Barack Obama at Belmont University with waspish intensity, and he came with at least one big new idea on how the country can weather this financial storm. But the transcendent threat of the nation's economic crisis utterly dominated the evening — another night when millions of Americans did not hear a crisp counterargument from McCain about why the Democrats can't blame the meltdown on eight years of Republican White House rule.

By night's end, while McCain knocked Obama back on his heels at times, Democrats felt their nominee had made no misstep and that a playing field utterly focused on economic issues still strongly favors the Illinois senator.

McCain needed to move the conversation beyond the economy, but a 500-point drop Tuesday of the Dow Jones Industrial Average made it virtually impossible. Much of the debate was a substantive discussion of the $700 billion bailout legislation, the prospect of the economy worsening before it gets better, and the housing crisis.

McCain did come with new ammunition on how to challenge his opponent’s seeming superiority with voters on economic issues. “One of the real catalysts, really the match that lit the fire, was Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac,” McCain said, referring to the government-sanctioned mortgage lenders. “They’re the ones that, with the encouragement of Sen. Obama and his cronies and friends in Washington, that went out and made all these risky loans, gave them to people that could never afford to pay back.”

The comment prompted Obama to drop his head and smile. It was one of the first in a series of elbows thrown by both nominees.

“Now, I’ve got to correct a little bit of Sen. McCain’s history, not surprisingly,” Obama said. “I never promoted Fannie Mae. In fact, Sen. McCain’s campaign chairman’s firm was a lobbyist on behalf of Fannie Mae.”

That was one of the more personal exchanges on a night that some thought might be the culmination of days of increasing nastiness on the campaign trail. The speculation proved mostly misplaced.

McCain did not mention the 1960s-era radical William Ayers, with whom Obama has been acquainted in Chicago. Obama did not raise Charles Keating, the McCain supporter whose involvement in the savings and loan crisis tarnished the Arizona Republican. Neither man called the other a liar.

Still, the tension between them was palpable.

McCain barely contained his disregard for Obama, at one point referring to the Democratic nominee as “that one” when describing who voted for a 2005 energy bill. Obama kept a tight smile that occasionally gave way to laughter.

The debate, held on the charmingly Southern campus of this college in downtown Nashville, came at an absolutely crucial time for McCain, who has seen his burst of momentum after the Republican convention slow into a potentially fatal downward spiral in polls in key battleground states.

Just as telling, the mood within the Republican Party — so buoyant after Sarah Palin’s selection as McCain’s running mate and her dramatic national debut in St. Paul — has turned morose. Party leaders on hand the past few days in Nashville have stayed loyal in public; but behind the scenes, there was a litany of complaints about the McCain campaign’s basic competence and its bungling of the economic issue, in particular.

Those stakes — a sense that the election might be at a decisive tipping point — frame the results of this debate. It was not enough for McCain to appear the victor within the prism of the political media’s combination of analsis and theatrical criticism. At this moment, he needed to somehow redefine himself as a candidate and re-emerge as the heroic national leader those close to him have always said he can be, a man who can toss off the baggage his party currently carries and guide a nation that faces what is fast becoming an existential economic threat.

But McCain struggled mightily to meet that goal, and the tide of this particular moment of history is daunting for him. He was ceaselessly energetic, prowling the stage like a prizefighter, seeming to revel in the town hall meeting format that he so loves. His aim: to connect with average voters and reclaim his image as an independent operator who cares only about solutions, particularly for the current economic mess.

“Americans are angry, they’re upset, and they’re a little fearful. It’s our job to fix the problem,” he said at the outset.

Later, in the brief section devoted to foreign policy, he went over to pat the shoulder of a questioner, Terry Chary, a naval chief petty officer. "Everything I ever learned about leadership I learned from a chief petty officer," he said.

But on an evening during which he hoped to turn the page, the severity of the financial meltdown the nation is witnessing dominated virtually every question and answer. That is not good territory for McCain, who again seemed either unable or unwilling to distance himself from President Bush’s economic record.

On Tuesday, Obama crystallized the economic policies of the Bush years as a doctrine, insisting “that we should strip away regulation, consumer protections, let the market run wild and prosperity would rain down on all of us. It hasn’t worked that way. And now we have to take some decisive action.”

McCain railed against earmarks and dropped a new proposal suggesting the government should buy up mortgages residents can no longer afford and renegotiate the value of their homes. He offered precious few details, and how he would pay for such a massive effort and maintain a spending freeze was initially confusing. The campaign later put out more specific language saying the direct cost of this plan would be roughly $300 billion and would be funded in large part by the bailout package passed this week by Congress.

But he never directly answered Obama’s charge — one that has to be central to the decision of many voters.

McCain’s dilemma, writ large as the campaign enters its final weeks, and seen in painful microcosm at Belmont, is that this campaign seems increasingly won or lost on the economy.

In fairness, he bloodied Obama at times, on taxes and on his inability or unwillingness to take on his party in the past. McCain’s campaign had made clear in recent days he would be tougher, and he was. The Arizona senator even seemed to take a shot at Sen. Joe Biden when he railed about overblown insurance mandates that would cover hair transplants.

He scored with a jab at Obama in which he said the nation cannot afford “on-the-job training” on national security with a first-term senator. Obama, however, deftly responded with a clearly pre-cooked refrain in which he acknowledged that there were some things he doesn’t understand — such as “how we ended up invading a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, while Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda are setting up base camps and safe havens to train terrorists to attack us. That was Sen. McCain's judgment, and it was the wrong judgment.”

But political tactics or rhetorical devices, even when they draw fair distinctions, just may not work in a time of such deepening crisis. For a campaign that appears to be behind — even in an election cycle in which appearances have always been deceiving — that’s bad news.

“You’re not interested in hearing politicians point fingers,” Obama answered Oliver Clark, the evening&squo;s second questioner, who asked how the bailout package passed by Congress would affect him. “What you're interested in is trying to figure out: How is this going to impact you?”

The bottom line of this debate — and the bad news for John McCain — is that he’s likely right.