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Open Season on Small Game

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 8, 2008

NASHVILLE, Oct. 7

John McCain needed a big night at Tuesday's second presidential debate to turn around a race that seems to be getting away from him. So he hit Barack Obama where it hurts: in the overhead projector.

McCain was asked about the global economic crisis. The Republican candidate answered by accusing Obama of voting for "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago."

Minutes later, another questioner at the town-hall-style debate asked what sacrifices would be required to restore the American dream. McCain answered that "we have to eliminate the earmarks," including -- you guessed it -- "the overhead projector that Senator Obama asked for."

The markets took another plunge Tuesday in what pretty much everybody calls the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And we're talking about overhead projectors?

It was, perhaps, an impossible task for McCain. Before the debate, the question had been whether he could turn in a "game-changing" performance that would shake up the race. But the format -- taking wide-ranging questions directly from voters -- largely prevented the candidates from engaging each other in an extended back-and-forth. The result was less game-changing than small-game hunting.

A questioner asked how the bailout would help ordinary people. McCain answered by taking a shot at "Senator Obama and his cronies" at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. "Senator Obama was the second-highest recipient of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac money in history -- in history," he said.

Moderator Tom Brokaw asked about the economy's prospects. McCain spoke about a letter he'd written on the topic. "Senator Obama's name was not on that letter," he said.

Another questioner asked how the two could be trusted with the people's money. McCain responded by calling Obama's "the most liberal big-spending record in the United States Senate."

Obama wasn't about to let McCain beat him at small-game hunting. The result: At a time of crisis and uncertainty, the nation heard 90 minutes of often-petty bickering between the two men who would lead the nation:

"Senator McCain's campaign chairman's firm was a lobbyist on behalf of Fannie Mae."

"Senator Obama has voted 94 times to either increase your taxes or against tax cuts."

"Senator McCain is proposing tax cuts that would give the average Fortune 500 CEO an additional $700,000 in tax cuts."

"Nailing down Senator Obama's various tax proposals is like nailing Jell-O to a wall."

"This is the guy who sang, 'Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.' "

"We don't have time for on-the-job training, my friends."

"Senator McCain, the Straight Talk Express lost a wheel on that one."

McCain was the more aggressive . He strode to center stage more quickly to meet Obama on his side. He got so close to the questioners that some appeared frightened. Rather than sit while Obama spoke, he stood upright or leaned against his stool. He was fidgety and unsmiling.

But if McCain succeeded in keeping Obama on the defensive for much of the night, he never quite "took the gloves off" as he had promised and his running mate, Sarah Palin, had urged. The names of past Obama associates Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, who have so inflamed tensions on the campaign trail, never came up.

On many of the big issues, both aspiring commanders were cagey. Would Obama commit to reforming Medicare and Social Security within two years? "I can't guarantee that," he said. And McCain? "My friends, what we have to do with Medicare is have a commission."

When the questioning turned to health care, McCain found himself talking about his baldness. "All of those people will be covered, except for those who have these gold-plated Cadillac kinds of policies," McCain said of his health-care proposals, then added: "You know, like hair transplants. I might need one of those myself."

Hair transplants? Not a game-changer. And for McCain, that was a problem. The political oddsmakers have come to a near-unanimous view that, barring unforeseen developments, McCain is on course to lose the election. McCain, therefore, needs an unforeseen development.

"John McCain needs a game-changer," said the Christian Science Monitor.

"McCain heads into tonight's debate here down in the polls and in need of a game-changer," quoth NBC.

Even al-Jazeera, broadcasting live from the debate site, reported that "John McCain has attempted many game-changing moments."

But he was stymied by a format -- one McCain himself originally requested -- that, by changing questioners and topics so frequently, precluded a game-changing moment. And Obama deftly preempted potential McCain attacks by reminding the audience, "Look, you're not interested in hearing politicians pointing fingers."

That left McCain firing with a small-gauge weapon.

He mentioned a bill "loaded down with goodies" for oil companies. "You know who voted for it?" he asked. "That one," he said of his opponent. Speaking about energy policy, McCain tried to criticize Obama's views on nuclear power but became ensnarled. "Now, how -- what's -- what's the best way of fixing it?" he asked himself. "Nuclear power. Senator Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that."

After a back-and-forth on deregulation, Brokaw tried to move on to foreign policy, but McCain wanted to stay on Obama's health-care plan and the penalties he said Obama would impose "if you don't get" the policy he thinks you should have. "Did we hear the size of the fine?" McCain said.

When they did finally make it to foreign policy, McCain informed the audience that the matter "requires a cool hand at the tiller."

Presumably, he meant a steady hand at the tiller, but no matter: The two men finished their small-bore skirmish and parted after a handshake that left partisans squabbling about whether someone had been snubbed.

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