Temperature of Debate? Lukewarm.

Despite no financial-bailout deal, John McCain headed to Mississippi anyway for the face-off.
Despite no financial-bailout deal, John McCain headed to Mississippi anyway for the face-off. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Saturday, September 27, 2008

OXFORD, Miss., Sept. 26 It was supposed to have been a Goldilocks debate.

At one wooden lectern stood the Republican nominee, tempestuous and tightly wound. A few steps across the red carpet stood his Democratic opponent, cerebral and condescending. "Is John McCain too hot?" Chris Matthews of "Hardball" broadcast from the Ole Miss campus before Friday night's first general-election debate. "Is Barack Obama too cold?"

But when they opened their mouths, what came out was neither hot nor cold, but a tepid gruel.

McCain was controlled. Obama was succinct. And both were so mild that moderator Jim Lehrer didn't know what to do. "Talk to each other," he urged. "Say it directly to him," he pleaded. "Do you have something directly to say, Senator Obama, to Senator McCain about what he just said? . . . Respond directly to him about that, to Senator Obama about that. He's made it twice now."

No use. Lehrer asked about the financial-bailout plan gripping the nation. "Do you favor this plan?" the moderator pressed.

"We haven't seen the language yet," Obama demurred.

"Are you going to vote for the plan, Senator McCain?"

"I -- I hope so," McCain hedged.

It was 75 minutes into the 90-minute debate before any real blood was drawn, when Obama was defending his willingness to meet with foes. "So let me get this right," McCain snapped. "We sit down with Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No, you're not'? Oh, please."

Laughter came from the audience. Obama struggled to respond but McCain kept cutting him off. "And Senator Obama is parsing words," he said.

"I am not parsing words," Obama insisted.

"He's parsing words, my friends."

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