washingtonpost.com
Analysis: First Presidential Debate

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Friday, September 26, 2008 10:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Friday, Sept. 26 at 10:30 p.m. ET to critique the performances of Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain in the first of three 2008 presidential debates.

The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. I look forward to a lively discussion for the next hour or so. I urge readers to give me their own assessments of the debate -- who did the best, and why? Which points were the most effective? Who stumbled, and when? I'll post as many of your comments as I can, sometimes adding observations of my own, sometimes not.

My first impression: Neither man committed a terrible goof. I learned in the last couple of weeks while working on an article about debate preparation (link below) that this was their single biggest concern. Defense is the name of the game.

To my eye, McCain was not at his best tonight. Comparing this debate to the two candidates' appearance in August with Rick Warren at his Saddleback Church is interesting. I thought McCain on that occasion was warm, funny, confident, loose. By comparison, he seemed a little tight to me tonight.

Obama I think was closer to the top of his game. He dispelled the idea that he couldn't keep up with McCain on foreign policy issues. Earlier this year some Republicans said they thought McCain would clobber the Democrat in this debate; it didn't happen.

But as I've said here many times before, my reactions to events of this kind are no more important than yours, than anyone else's.

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washingtonpost.com: Grueling Prep Work Precedes Critical Clash (Post, Sept. 26)

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Austin, Texas: I think that there is still a stalemate. McCain was feisty and Obama was learned. I am not clear that anybody won or swayed people. McCain's behavior this week is negated somewhat by a strong performance this evening.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Good comment.

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Clawson, Mich.: Did anyone notice that McCain never looked) at Obama? What's up with that? How does this bode for being leader of the U.S. when dealing with someone else he doesn't necessarily agree with?

Robert G. Kaiser: I noticed this too; no idea how people may react to it. I felt Obama looked more comfortable than McCain for much of the debate.

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Rockville, Md.: Who pays for the debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: A lot of money is donated by the university that provides the site. Corporations and foundations also contribute. If you Google "Commission on Presidential Debates" you'll get to their website, where they post their donors.

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Herndon, Va.: Compared to the first debate between Kerry and Bush in 2004, this bodes well for our country. Both candidates can form cogent arguments and appear to be engaged with the issues. How long until Jan. 20 again? The debate seemed like a draw to me -- both made their points and stuck to the issues, and it's up to the voters to make the call based on their own judgment. I feel like America is on its way to getting "back on track."

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I would only add the obvious political point that a draw here probably favors Obama, because this topic was supposed to be McCain's strong suit. Did he look stronger on it tonight? I don't think so.

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Reston, Va.: I thought Obama held his own, but he was a little too polite. Your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: Is polite bad? I hope not.

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New York: McCain did better than I thought he would. Obama appeared to keep up for half of the way, but I do think he lost momentum halfway through, after which and McCain appeared stronger.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: More than 600 service members re-enlisted while serving in Iraq. Asked why they re-enlisted, most said it was for the tax-free bonuses -- it's all about the money. What will the president do to assist the WTU soldiers, or to address the suicide rate, service member families on welfare, the divorce rate for service members, and most importantly the service members who are being deployed for the forth or fifth time?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: Your "Preparing for a Debate" piece on washingtonpost.com this evening was quite well-done; I wish it had been in this morning's print edition for all to read. It clarified much and provided good background. I'm just sayin'...

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't like to embarrass our readers, but my article was splashed all over page six of today's paper.

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Upstate New York: It seems like foreign policy was to be Sen. McCain's strongest point, but he didn't come off particularly strong tonight. Sen. Obama held his own. I'm a swing voter, and I feel that on his strength, Sen. McCain didn't really impress me. Knowing that he is weak on economic issues, it makes me lean away from him.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Arlington, Va.: In previous presidential debates, is it customary for the candidates to refer to each other on a first-name basis, or do they generally refer to one another as governor, senator, congressman, etc.?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think first names are not unusual.

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Fairfax, Va.: I missed the first half hour or so, but from what I saw, they seemed evenly matched. I recall Kerry clearly kicking Bush's butt in 2004, but McCain and Obama fought to a draw. Lots of talking points. I think the question from Lehrer about what the bailout will do to their priorities if elected was illuminating, in that Obama doesn't seem clear about which of his spending programs he'd be willing to give up -- and given the debt we have and will have, he's going to have to give up something.

Robert G. Kaiser: You are right. Neither man wanted to give up anything.

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Williamsburg, Va.: Is there some strategy intended by Sen. McCain not looking at Sen. Obama or directly engaging with him during the debate? If I understood correctly, that was requested at the start.

Robert G. Kaiser: It was fascinating how, particularly in the beginning, neither man wanted to exploit the new possibilities in tonight's format for direct questioning between the candidates. McCain was never really comfortable with it. I was warned (see my article, linked to above) by longtime participants in debate preparations that both candidates would avoid looking "too aggressive." They did.

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Austin, Texas: It seems to me that Obama managed to get more discussion around correcting the record and re-enforcing the lack of truthfulness on McCain, but McCain was strong. If his past behavior and campaign had not pushed me away, then I am not sure that the debate would have been determinative.

washingtonpost.com: See The Fact-Checker blog's take on debate statements and veracity.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Check out the fact checker.

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Laurel, Md.: Yawn. Did either of them say anything we hadn't been hearing since, like, December?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't think so, but of course, millions of people tuned in tonight for the first time. Those of us who have been following this since early 2007 have certainly heard it all before, but we are the weirdoes in a culture that generally resists politics. Many in politics and in television expected 100 million people to watch tonight. If that happened, a lot of people heard a lot of stuff for the first time.

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Yonkers, N.Y.: You know how the best refereed games are the ones where you don't notice the ref? I thought Lehrer was a good as it gets. He should do them all. No ego trips by that man.

Robert G. Kaiser: A very good point. I agree.

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Bethesda, Md.: As an Obama supporter I was a little afraid that the "professor" would come to the debate ... fortunately the college president showed up. His answers were shorter than usual.

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes they were

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Philadelphia: As a "high information" voter who has been obsessed by this campaign for nine months, I can't quite fathom undecideds. Do they really think the debate will tell them something new? Do they actually sway anyone, or just reinforce the direction they're heading?

Robert G. Kaiser: See above. A lot of the undecideds are un-knowing as well, at least until now.

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West Chester, Pa.: Don't you think Obama seemed to be more on the defense? I thought McCain kept him on his toes. Thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: I did not have that impression, but you did, and as I said at the outset, your view is as significant as mine.

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Slidell, La.: I thought McCain looked calm and handed out a lot of facts. I felt this was not Obama's best day -- toward the end, he started talking faster and seemed as if he was on the defensive. I watched on CBS, so I couldn't tell who was looking at whom, but I think a split screen was to Obama's detriment. I didn't care so much about what "I had done" -- I wanted to hear "this is what I will do."

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I think Obama was at his best talking about restoring America's standing in the world -- a "what I will do" that, I know from my foreign travels, is about something very real: the low regard in which we are now held.

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Philadelphia: I agree with Sen. McCain that we need to treat our veterans better. However, I agree infinitely more with Sen. Obama, who seems to think that we we need to treat our veterans, children, students, sick and underprivileged better.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Reston, Va.: No looking at their watches, no sighing, no scowling, no talk of a "global test." How exactly do candidates expect me to decide how to vote if I don't have such inconsequential things to help make my decision? Thanks for the chat, Bob!

Robert G. Kaiser: My heart goes out to you.

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Bethesda, Md.: Sen. Obama must have said "John is absolutely right" 20 times tonight. Did you notice that? Does it undermine Obama to always seem to be agreeing with his opponent?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting point. And McCain said, as many times, that Obama "doesn't understand." What was the impact of that? I don't know.

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Loveland, Colo.: I was surprised that McCain didn't talk about how we ended up in Iraq in response to the question of "lessons learned."

Robert G. Kaiser: You're right about that.

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Battle Ground, Wash.: What I didn't care for was McCain's "what Sen. Obama doesn't understand" comments. That, and his condescending smirks and comments.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Vienna, Va.: Jim Lehrer was okay, but when he pressed for the third time on one of the early questions, it should have told him that maybe it was a poor question. Also, at the beginning he said he "chose" the questions, I think. I wonder who wrote them.

Robert G. Kaiser: I talked to Lehrer this week and can report that he wrote the questions. I don't agree with your criteria. Through the years, many of my best questions have been ignored or evaded by politicians again and again and again!

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Seattle: I wasn't particularly impressed by either candidate, but McCain seemed worse. Obama tried to make the point that our military power is derived from our economic power, but it seemed as though he got lost in what he was trying to say. McCain seemed confused and erratic, but he has seemed that way the past few weeks, so I wasn't surprised. I guess in front of an audience of millions a little nervousness is to be expected, but neither seemed able to make a clean, concise point.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Independence, Mo.: There seemed to be lots of charges and counter-charges hurled by both candidates tonight. From what you could tell, which of the candidates' charges were the most accurate? Sometimes it can be really confusing to viewers when the "facts" start flying!

Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a link to our fact-checker feature, which will give you meatier answers than I can here:

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washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker

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Washington: The Fact-Checker didn't address the Kissinger disagreement. It seemed like Obama wouldn't have brought up something about McCain's own adviser unless he had researched it before, but McCain resisted him, saying that he would know because he's been a friend for 35 years. What's the truth?

Robert G. Kaiser: Kissinger definitely had joined the other former secretaries of State in calling for direct diplomacy with Iran.

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Washington: My favorite line of the night was Obama's about earmarks: "You're using a hatchet when you should be using a scalpel." To me, that exemplifies the approach of each candidate. I don't think McCain does nuance any more than Bush does. Also, Joe Biden has been on multiple channels doing commentary. Will Palin be allowed out to do the same, do you know?

Robert G. Kaiser: I am chatting, not watching, so have missed Biden. I assure you the networks would love to have Palin on camera to comment, but she is still being hidden away.

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Flint, Mich.: McCain sounded smoother. I hate to say it, Obama's speaking style included more umms, pauses, etc. ... which matters nothing to content, but doesn't sound as nice to the ear. Do you think that McCain "sounded" better?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't.

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Prescott, Ariz.: So I noticed that I judged the first 10 minutes, and then it was all a blur. I am an overeducated American. After that it was all name-dropping on foreign policy. If it is a matter of the first 10 minutes, who won? I think Obama.

Robert G. Kaiser: Not sure how you got overeducated if you only have ten minutes to devote to something as important as this...

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Syracuse, N.Y.: I feel that McCain and Obama were both scared in the debate, but McCain was not in his place. McCain kept bringing up things from the wars in the past. That doesn't help us today. The both of them scare me. The war in Iraq will never end. Afghanistan is where we should of been at in the first place, like Obama said. I don't know if the U.S. ever will be the same...

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Brookline, Mass: Perhaps it was because McCain's campaign has seemed so lost this week, but I was pleasantly surprised by McCain's performance. He showed a reassuring grasp of the foreign affairs questions, like he had been around these issues long enough to have formulated his views. Obama struck me more as a bright person who had crammed and performed well on a test. But how refreshing to have a reasonably substantive debate from two interesting candidates.

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you.

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Herndon, Va.: When Jim Lehrer became dissatisfied with the candidates' answers about what broad effect the potential bailout would have on their presidential spending proposals, he asked again. The second time, I thought Sen. Obama amended his answer to address the question. Sen. McCain, however, did not seem to change his answer. Do you agree?

Robert G. Kaiser: Up to a point I do agree, but Obama didn't really confront what was a serious question, did he?

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Arlington, Va.: I think McCain did surprisingly well on the economy, and Obama hammered him on Iraq, but in the end aren't voters just going to listen to whatever the ads and propaganda tell them, and not really pay attention to the substance of the debate? (Yes, I'm feeling a bit jaded about this campaign.)

Robert G. Kaiser: How and why people make their voting decisions is a rich, complicated question. Your cynicism does not contribute much to answering it, though.

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Pasadena, Calif.: Why was there no discussion of China?

Robert G. Kaiser: Obama made a very interesting point about China toward the end, I thought. Getting a beer?

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Alliance, Neb.: I'd never pegged McCain for a liar, but it was really hard to ignore how many times he tried to make statements that were blatantly untrue, on subjects that are matters of public record. I think it was particularly telling that he repeatedly denied that Kissinger, his own adviser, actually agreed with Obama's call to meet with adversaries without setting preconditions. It was also pretty obvious that he'd been coached to repeat that "Obama doesn't understand" at every opportunity. It was too obvious to be anything but a gimmick.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. We are very pleased to have a reader in Alliance!

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Washington: The one line that I thought was kind of cringe-worthy was when Obama said "I have a bracelet, too." Especially the way he said it, I felt that could be construed in a negative light.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Bryn Mawr, Pa.: It seemed to me like McCain was sticking to a list of prepared talking points and couldn't rebut Obama's more-detailed analysis of the accusations. Struck me that John McCain is seeing how much mud he can get to stick...

Robert G. Kaiser: And thank you.

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Falls Church, Va.: I was a little startled at McCain's comment about Kennedy being admitted to the hospital. He actually already was home by then. A little odd to be so dramatic about it when he did not even know what was up.

washingtonpost.com: Kennedy Treated For Mild Seizure (AP, Sept. 26)

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you. I suspect he didn't get the late word that Sen. Kennedy had gone home.

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Cincinnati: I thought Obama was more poised and looked better, but McCain's historical references gave credence to his claim to experience. Obama in the middle of the debate seemed to struggle at times to get his points out, but gathered himself a bit later. Still, clearly, if McCain had looked more relaxed I think we'd be awarding him the trophy tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Your comment reminds me how hard it is to read these events. Having seen the relaxed McCain (the Saddleback Church forum was a good example, mentioned earlier), I too saw a much tenser, less comfortable McCain tonight. But what did people think who know him less well, and have seen him less frequently? I have no idea.

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Pittsburgh: Both candidates confirmed their supporters' ongoing respective support for them, but when will we see polls on how that prized sliver of undecided voters felt about tonight's debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: I'm on hold right now waiting for a conference call with Stan Greenberg, a good Democratic pollster, who will report on the impressions of a focus group of voters in St. Louis in the next few minutes. I'll give you a report too.

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Sterling, Va.: Where was McCain's flag lapel pin?

Robert G. Kaiser: He never wears one, interestingly.

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Rockville, Md.: The line I thought was most "cringe-worthy" was when McCain talked about the U.S. not engaging in torture "ever again."

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Richmond, Va.: I was not impressed with McCain from the very beginning. He wanted to come across as "concerned" and "compassionate" toward Sen. Kennedy, but it appears what he hoped to do was start off by tugging at the heartstrings of the American public and endear us toward him. Didn't work with me. He picked a very unstable running mate, and that says it all for me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Obama held his own on foreign policy; isn't that all he had to do?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hard to say if that was "all he had to do," but it impressed me as politically helpful.

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Lafayette, Calif.: Obama had the most powerful argument about the Iraq war ruining this country's economy. Why do you think he wasn't able to drive the point home more forcefully?

Robert G. Kaiser: Can't say.

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Anonymous: I was disappointed that neither man skated to the middle of the pond regarding Georgia. Without condoning what Russia did, this is a complicated situation stretching back many years that remained unresolved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The majority of the population in the breakaway provinces are of Russian extraction.

I had the same disappointment regarding their responses on how the bailout will influence changes in budget policy. The honest answer is that we simply will borrow our way out of it short-term, because the arithmetic doesn't work on either spending cuts or tax adjustments of sufficient magnitude.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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San Diego: I doubt that John McCain would be able to convince leaders from other countries to join the U.S. with priorities of containing Iran or North Korea. Like George W. Bush, people who don't agree with him "just don't understand." Much different from Bush's father, who was able to convince the rest of the world to pay for removing Iraq from Kuwait.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting point.

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Marietta, Ga.: "You are right. Neither man wanted to give up anything." It would be irresponsible and unfair to expect them to name specific programs they would cut until they actually have the budget in front of them and know how much needs to be cut. In general you know where their priorities are, and can vote accordingly.

Robert G. Kaiser: Okay, fair enough.

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Virginia: The undecided are those who did not vote for these two in the primaries and are unhappy with the choice they are given.

Robert G. Kaiser: Not necessarily. Many of them are people who haven't focused on the election at all.

I'm just hearing Stan Greenberg analyze his focus group of 45 undecided voters in Las Vegas, not St. Louis. This is not a poll, not scientific, but it was interesting. "It was a very good debate for Barack Obama" is Greenberg's conclusion -- he's a Democrat and an Obama supporter, but his evidence seemed to confirm his view. The main thing was how much Obama improved his reputation during the debate with these voters.

Before the debate, 6 percent of the 45 thought Obama would be better on national security, more than 60 percent said McCain. Obama radically improved his position with these voters (who mostly voted for Bush in 2004).

Inconclusive, but interesting.

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Potomac, Md.: after watching the debate, I still don't know how Senator McCain is going to deal with Iran. Does he want to continue the failed policies of Bush administration toward Iran and watch Iran develop the bomb? Can you answer me?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Lafayette, Calif.: How do you manage to read and respond so fast? Great job!

Robert G. Kaiser: This is my cousin in Lafayette, I guess. Thanks!

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Roswell, Ga.: I thought both McCain and Obama did very well. Both candidates were far better than either Bush-Gore or Bush-Kerry. I would guess undecided voters who watched mostly will remain undecided. I don't see huge differences between these candidates when they debate, but given the difference in their voting records, it makes me question Obama's sincerity when he presents himself as a moderate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Fairfax, Va.: Obama said the Russian invasion was unprovoked. Wasn't Georgia saber-rattling?

Robert G. Kaiser: It was more than saber-rattling -- Georgia attacked South Ossetia to start the war.

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State College, Pa.: Given that Obama is supposed to not know much about foreign policy, I thought he came off very studied and knowledgeable about it -- certainly enough so that I would feel very comfortable with him at the helm of the country. He knew what he was talking about. He came across presidential as, to me!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Interesting point.

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Annapolis, Md.: I really enjoyed watching this debate. At least they both seemed to know what they were talking about. Do you think that McCain will ever take the leash off of Palin?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think he has to take the leash off or face a really serious political problem. Of course he may face that if he does take the leash off, too.

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Waynesboro, Pa.: Both candidates looked presidential, and Obama seemed more comfortable. I got the sense that McCain was talking down to Obama. He kept calling him naive and saying he just didn't understand. I think that tactic was misguided and may well backfire.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks, Waynesboro. Do you still have country music in that great old hardware store on your main drag?

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Minneapolis: I also had wondered about McCain's comment regarding Ted Kennedy; it seemed grasping and very disingenuous to me. Obama's statement that he "has a bracelet too" took on a different meaning for me than another poster's. His tone indicated to me that he was calling McCain on using such a gift to make a political point, instead of cherishing it in the spirit in which it was given.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think your sympathies are showing! But that's okay!

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London: I do not understand the way Americans are fixated on who wins or loses a debate. If winning were the true test, Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee. If you judge by understanding complex issues and being measured in his responses, Obama definitely is intellectually head-and-shoulders above McCain. If you want a feisty man who has been around the block more than once and is very impressed with himself and his ability, McCain won.

Truth be told, I am more interested in the whole package. It's like the difference between being courted and having a one-night stand. McCain may be around longer, but his ideas are like a man obsessed, looking to accomplish his mission, i.e. a one-night stand, bent on getting to the finish line without thinking how he is going to get there. Obama, on the other hand, thinks about the long-term effects of his decisions, and that is the way a president should be.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this, very interesting. Are we obsessed? Maybe. We love to reduce politics to the dimensions of an athletic event, it's true.

Your comment gives me an opportunity to mention age, an issue in this campaign of unknown significance. McCain is a quarter-century older than Obama, and the oldest man ever to run for president. That's a very tangible part of "the package." Did he look old tonight?

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Austin, Texas: Some will think that McCain's aggressive language about Russia and Iran will help him on national security. I think the American people are sick to death of war, and are in no mood to even contemplate another one right now. So I give that part of the debate to Obama.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Tashkent, Uzbekistan: I thought the debate was fairly even. To me, it's interesting that the McCain campaign won't put up Palin to comment on the debate. I don't think this helps him.

Robert G. Kaiser: You really watched from Tashkent? I was there six years ago, even interviewed President Karimov. I love the thought of you in that handsome tree-lined city watching this debate. The time there is what, 10 or 12 hours ahead of Washington? So it was a civilized mid-morning debate. Fun to imagine.

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Montreal: It's a bit harsh, but I just found McCain boring. When he talked about the '80s and '90s, it just seemed to emphasize his age rather than his experience. I know that's not a very intellectual response, but that's how I felt watching it. Obama seemed to be better at varying his tone and using gestures.

Robert G. Kaiser: Feelings matter, of course.

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Denver: I thought the format was good -- it was so nice to hear them have some real time to speak, instead of having like 30 seconds to expound on a serious matter. I wish they all would be like this. Lots of back and forth was nice too, until McCain kept interrupting (I only saw the last 45 minutes).

Robert G. Kaiser: I agree with you. I suspect by the third debate (same format) we'll see them go after one another more directly, too.

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Fact-Check: Bob, did SDI really play a major part in bringing down the Soviet Union, as McCain said?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a controversial question. I asked a version of it to Mikhail Gorbachev when he was in Washington for President Reagan's funeral, and (hardly for the first time) he flatly denied it. I wrote a book years ago called "Why Gorbachev Happened" in which I argued that the American contribution to ending the Cold War was very modest compared to Gorbachev's. I can't take time to argue the case here, but personally I would dispute McCain's description. One point: Gorbachev says he knew that SDI would not work (and indeed, until today, after the expenditure of many billions on it, we still could not stop Russian missiles from hitting the U.S. with our ABM systems), so it never really upset him.

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Greensburg, Pa.: I thought it really showed up the age difference -- McCain's continuing reference to Iraq and the Surge was reminiscent of times past when there was one easily identifiable enemy or war (like Russia or Vietnam) while Obama took a much more "global citizen" view encompassing a number of different countries. I was turned off by McCain's inability to answer any question without mentioning the surge, which has its place, but is only a component of larger world difficulties.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Winston-Salem, N.C.: I felt that Obama won the debate on logic, but needs to come out more in his responses. I think his major debating mistake is continually pointing out areas of agreement with McCain (e.g. "I agree with Senator McCain on [insert issue]"). I think this is a habit carried over from the primary debates, and is a device that may be appropriate when you are criticizing someone who may end up as a running mate -- but it is completely out of place at a contentious debate with the opposing party. He needs to kill that behavior. Deference won't win this, I should think.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting thought that he was treating McCain like a Democrat in the primaries.

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San Diego: I noticed that Obama often interrupted McCain, while McCain rarely interrupted him. How do you think first-time viewers would see this -- being rude, or being firm?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea.

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Sacramento, Calif.: I thought that McCain looked much more comfortable that Obama. Obama (on numerous occasions) stuttered and hesitated to answer the questions (he talked all around them, but never answered). I am wondering how many people have drunk the Obama Kool-Aid, or if they were watching the same debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Stan Greenberg's focus group of Republican-leaning undecided voters sharply disagreed with you. Which proves nothing.

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McCain's Iraq comments: Robert, the pundits were giving McCain a lot of credit for his strong comments in this regard but they seem to ignore one thing: Most Americans don't agree with him. The polls say most people think the invasion was a mistake, and they don't want to stay there. It may not matter how loquacious McCain was if people don't agree with his point.

Robert G. Kaiser: I had a similar thought watching tonight. The overwhelming majority of Americans think we made a mistake fighting the war in Iraq; that is a fact, according to poll after poll.

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Speaking of Format: Will the format for the vice presidential debate be at all free-wheeling?

washingtonpost.com: Discussion Transcript: Washington Week With Gwen Ifill (washingtonpost.com, Sept. 25)

Robert G. Kaiser: The segments for the vice presidential debate are to be five minutes long instead of nine, what we had tonight. So it will be less free wheeling, but not too rigid. Gwen Ifill has a big challenge as the moderator. Here's a link to some interesting reading.

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Dallas: Do you agree that in a formal debate these two men should not have interrupted and "spoken over" one another as they both did? As much as I know they both had important points and clarifications to raise, it came across to me as rude and ham-handed. But maybe other viewers tune in for the snarkiness, the fight.

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last one tonight. As always, I am grateful for the smart and interesting observations of our wonderful readers. I'll be back next week for the Joe & Sarah show, which I anticipate eagerly.

I don't know how to answer Dallas. Sure, some people hope this will be like pro wrestling. We're a diverse bunch, we Americans. I thought the manners were good tonight, the debate quite orderly, except at the very end when they both just kept talking for a minute or so.

The big question is how impressions of this will settle in over the weekend. Lehrer made an interesting point to me earlier this week: tomorrow is a day for socializing. People will gather at soccer games, at the supermarket, wherever, and they will exchange opinions. By Monday, I suspect, opinion will have settled down, and the first polls next week may tell us a lot more about the impact of this interesting debate.

Good night to all.

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