John McCain may have gone a long way towards closing the gap with Barack Obama when it comes to stage presence in Friday night's debate. But neither man's performance did anything that changed the basic trajectory of the race. And that's excellent news for Obama.
McCain exceeded his often uneven debate performances from the primary season. He was sharp, focused and confident while at the same time showing a large degree of annoyance at having to share the stage with a political upstart like Obama. That attitude might have miffed Obama supporters but probably didn't do much to hurt McCain among independent or undecided voters.
Anyone tuning in who expected Obama to clean the floor with McCain though was promptly disappointed. Using an aggressive style, the Arizona senator had his younger opponent on the defensive for much of the night, having to constantly refute charges or clarify his positions. Stepping back from it for a moment, it was a big win stylistically for someone facing off against a speaker with the reputation of Obama's.
But the one thing McCain most needed didn't happen in Oxford. No runs, no hits and no errors isn't a formula for the more-familiar McCain. As a longtime fixture in national politics, most voters already have their opinions of the Republican. What they may be looking for, particularly those remaining undecided, is a reason to either feel more or less comfortable with Obama.
In other words, what doesn't disqualify Obama in the minds of voters helps him. In the CBS News instant poll taken following the debate, Obama held a 39 percent to 24 percent edge over McCain among uncommitted voters who thought one candidate or the other "won" the debate. Those who felt that Obama won said, in part, that they found him more knowledgeable about the issues than they expected. He did nothing to disqualify himself, in other words.
In the few polls we've seen since the debate, Obama appears to be a tad bit further ahead than he was at this point last week. In the Gallup tracking poll, he's now ahead by eight points and sitting right at 50 percent. We've not seen anything that matches the 12-point lead the Washington Post poll showed last week but Obama has consistently led by about five points in most national polls.
When political strategists talk about "game changers," they aren't talking about a temporary shake-up, they're talking about altering the fundamental dynamics of the race, all of which help Obama right now. Nothing happened in Oxford to do that, so Obama must have "won" the debate.
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