Wednesday, October 8, 2008

John McCain Has Lost His Confidence

Let's face it - these debates aren't really debates - they're auditions.

A real "debate" would be a substantive discussion on the issues, and although we have seen that happen from time to time, it's only one of many components of the overall audition.

Everything from smiling into the camera to delivering sharp one-liners plays into the performance - and sometimes, depending on expectations, simply not screwing up is enough to make it through.

In the end, debates are won with confidence. No voter can have confidence in a candidate if a candidate doesn't have confidence in himself. And what we saw more than anything last night was a palpable display of John McCain's loss of confidence.

Sarah Palin went into last week's debate facing very low expectations; conversely, McCain went into last night's debate facing very high expectations.

He had been touting his townhall debate proposal all summer, and it was all but established that the townhall format favored him.

He had appeared erratic and impulsive during the economic crisis and needed to come across as stable and presidential.

He had appeared agitated and cynical during the first presidential debate, needed to show more optimism, and needed to connect with voters in the warm way that he did during his townhall meetings in the primary season.

He needed to follow through on his campaign's bizarre announcement that they will now focus on 'exposing' Obama's alleged deficiency in character, judgment, and patriotism.

He didn't do any of those things.

Instead, he reminded voters again and again of his record and experience, which have now been established as non-factors in this debate. The two most popular candidates in this election, Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, have the shortest records and the least experience.

He appeared agitated, cynical, and tired again, more so than in the first debate. He occasionally rambled. His few attempts at humor fell flat, making him appear sarcastic and passive-aggressive. It really is a testament to John McCain's honesty that he doesn't have a very good poker face, but in these debates/auditions, this has been a major handicap.

Finally, his decision not to bring up talking points like the alleged "terrorist" ties Obama has - as his campaign and running mate have been doing recently - showed inconsistency.

McCain had promised a feisty Tuesday night, and appears now to have backtracked on the nature of the attacks that his party's faithful were hoping to see. He built up those expectations for the Republican base all week, and then let them down, de-energizing them at a time where it is critical for him to maintain the fragile momentum and energy level the Republicans have finally gained in this fall.

McCain is trailing by more than 5 points in almost every aggregate poll, and he's down by over 100 votes in state-by-state electoral college polls. He walked into last night's debate looking like a man too aware of that - discouraged and exhausted, his confidence shattered.

To regain his footing, he needs his confidence back.

And it's not going to happen with the William Ayers association attacks or questions about Obama's patriotism. It's too late for McCain to define his opponent - everybody already knows Barack Obama by now, and opinions have already been formed.

Perhaps finding Osama bin Laden can save John McCain. Maybe if Sarah Palin is dropped and a new, equally explosive VP pick is announced a week before November 4, he could get his mojo back. But short of those kinds of scenarios, I've run out of ideas.

It's becoming very obvious that John McCain has too.

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