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Analysis: Second Presidential Debate

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Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Tuesday, October 7, 2008; 10:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Tuesday, Oct. 7 at 10:30 p.m. ET to critique the performances of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama in their second presidential debate.

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The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Hello and welcome to our post-debate discussion. We have been having televised presidential debates for nearly 50 years, but no previous one was held in such dramatic circumstances. The world economy is teetering, but our election campaign must go on! And go on it did tonight. To my disappointment, neither candidate really seemed to take on the implications of this financial catastrophe. My hunch is neither wants to face up to what has happened in the past couple of weeks. They've been running for most of two years, and they aren't ready to say goodbye to the world they thought they were running in. But it's gone. I wonder how disappointing this evasion was for viewers.

The first questions I've seen already seem to reflect the frustration I felt tonight with the back-and-forth point scoring. This isn't the best use of the debate format, for sure.

Who won? I look forward to your answers to that question. As I did the first time -- just 11 days ago, if you can believe it -- I did not think this was McCain at his best. He often seemed very self-conscious to me. His breathless voice tonight sometimes seemed strained and unnatural. His determination, evident in the first debate, to avoid his catch-phrase "my friends" disappeared tonight. He repeated himself quite often. But he ended very well. Obama seemed to project the same steady, cool persona we saw the first time out, which the polls say won the debate for him then. But he avoided answering quite a few questions, which may have annoyed viewers. Of course McCain avoided answering some questions too.

At about 11 p.m. I hope to have a report for you from a panel of undecided voters who were watching and reacting in a big focus group led by Stan Greenberg, a prominent Democratic pollster. Last time a similar group gave Obama the nod when many pundits were declaring a draw or a McCain victory. Then the polls came in and said Obama had indeed won the debate in the estimation of the largest number of voters. So it will be interesting to see what we get tonight.

So have at it! I'm eager to post your comments and answer your questions.

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Washington: As someone familiar with our electoral history, where do these two candidates rank? Maybe I have unrealistically high expectations, but these two seem very below-average to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Boy do I disagree with you. How old are you I wonder? These are two good candidates in my comparative memory.

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Falls Church, Va.: I am firmly in the Obama camp and will still vote for him, but I think McCain won the debate tonight. What is the initial response from your audience?

Robert G. Kaiser: Sorry you didn't explain why. You'll see lots of other views here soon.

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St. Louis: How different did you think either candidate was from past debates?

Robert G. Kaiser: Not very.

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West Hartford, Conn.: I thought McCain made a huge effort to look friendly and relaxed after the first debate where he was criticized for being cold and unfriendly, but it came across as contrived, like he was trying too hard.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Washington: In your opinion, was there a clear winner in this debate?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I've said here before, my reactions, so often wrong, occasionally right, are no more significant than anyone else's. I wait for evidence, from polls and such, and I wait for my splendid colleague Tom Shales, who will have an insightful column on the front of tomorrow's Style section and on washingtonpost.com tomorrow or late tonight.

That said, I think McCain was the loser tonight because he was not clearly the winner, and he is behind. Momentum is running against him. He's in a very tough spot at the moment.

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Rochester, N.Y.: This debate was infinitely more substantive than last week's Palinpalooza ... and I have to admit that I'm bored senseless. Does that make me a bad person? Is there a way to marry the winking, the nose-wrinkling, the sense that at any moment things could go terribly wrong ... with a meaningful discussion?

Robert G. Kaiser: If we could just teach these two to wink, wouldn't the world be great?

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Grand Rapids, Mich.: I walked out to get a crying baby; what was the "that one" comment from McCain? Overall, I thought both did well; not much of a game-changer. Obama strikes me as a steady, thoughtful, confident person. McCain seemed tired.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Boston: The question that needs to be addressed before any real progress can be made in solving the nation's problems is: What will each candidate do to reduce or eliminate the vicious partisan attacks that have taken over the presidential campaign and eliminated informative discussion of the issues? Because until that issue is resolved, we can expect more of the same mudslinging that has become the strategy of the day.

Robert G. Kaiser: Alas, you're probably dreaming. But thanks for the comment.

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Kensington, Md.: What do you make of "Principal" Brokaw, scolding the candidates for taking up too much time? This format seemed so forced; the candidates, particularly McCain, seemed patronizing when directly addressing the questioners, they both seemed frustrated by not being able to counter what the other had said ... it didn't seem conducive to actual "debate." I do think Obama was more specific with his answers and seemed less erratic. Hey, maybe we'll have "Coach" Buffett as the Secretary of the Treasury! He's pretty good with money...

Robert G. Kaiser: Like Gwen Ifill last week, Tom could not get control. Maybe not his job, really.

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Ames, Iowa: We know both candidates have transition teams at work. Wouldn't it be enlightening to know what priorities those teams have been assigned? Or how they've been altered in the past week?

Robert G. Kaiser: From my experience, transition teams at this stage are working on mechanics, not priorities.

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McLean, Va.: McCain wants us all to know we are his friends. What would be the reason why he would repeat this line over and over again? It seemed too deliberate, and not genuine at all.

washingtonpost.com: A History of 'My Friends' in Politics (Slate, Sept. 1)

Robert G. Kaiser: Chris Hopkins, my creative producer, here gives you a link to a Slate piece on this compelling subject.

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Washington: Why wasn't Brokaw more aggressive with cutting off the candidates when they went over the allotted time?

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't speak for Tom.

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Amherst, N.H.: What's with McCain standing and walking around while Obama is speaking? More distraction?

Robert G. Kaiser: Don't know.

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Los Angeles: Mr. Kaiser, I love these chats! I thought Obama missed an opportunity, when McCain talked about eBay being a job engine, to paint McCain as out of touch -- eBay just yesterday announced that they're laying off 10,000 workers.

washingtonpost.com: EBay to Fire 10 Percent of Workers, Buy Bill Me Later (Bloomberg News, Oct. 7)

Robert G. Kaiser: Boy are you right! Here's a story about it, thanks to Chris.

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Class warfare?: When discussing tax cuts, Obama favors them for all but the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpayers, while McCain favors them for everyone. Do you think McCain is able to convince swing voters that they and the economy will benefit from tax breaks for the top 5 percent? I'm doubtful of it.

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know, but am grateful for your post.

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Annandale, Va.: This is twice in two debates we've now heard McCain advocate a freeze on everything but military and entitlement spending. I don't get how that squares with the ideas of buying up mortgages, building new nuclear reactors and spending more on energy research. It doesn't sound like much of a freeze to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think you're on to something.

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Los Angeles: Having watched the first debate, this one is sort of boring. Given that, I think Obama wins. McCain at this point must shake things up in order to change the momentum. Your thoughts?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have one ear on the comments on radio (NPR) and TV, and their pundits seem to be agreeing with you.

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Portland, Ore.: McCain said he was going to "take his gloves off" in this debate; do you think he did or didn't, and why?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know his definition of "gloveless" debating, but this didn't seem to be as ferocious as many expected. But I was not one of the many -- I doubted there would be blood on the floor, because the format argues eloquently against it, and the candidates know that the viewers don't want it.

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Falls Church, Va.: Re: "Sorry you didn't explain why," I think McCain answered the questions more directly than Obama, who seemed to dodge issues several times. I think McCain's answers were stated more clearly. McCain simply was more memorable tonight, especially when interacting with the officer toward the end. I will vote for Obama because I agree with his policies more, but he disappointed me in the debate tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: Great thanks.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Did McCain really say that the fix to Social Security was simple, and it involved sitting at the table? My father-in-law is a Republican and I'm a Democrat; we sit together all the time, and we don't solve social security. Also, didn't it seem that Obama was more able to answer all the questions, including foreign policy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes, he said that. Appreciate your observation.

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New York: Where is McCain now? Obama has spent over 15 minutes shaking hand and having his photo taken at the end on his own.

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, I'm in The Post newsroom answering your questions!

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Laurel, Md.: Both candidates agreed we need to "stabilize home prices" -- as if a 75 percent increase since 2000 isn't good enough, now that it's down 25 percent in the past two years.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting point. Do you think today's values are going to hold? I doubt it.

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Bethesda, Md.: In my opinion, the moderator was not fair. He laughed at McCain's snide comments (did anyone hear the fine?) and pressed Obama several times. I don't think it made a big difference, but it was obvious to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Did others feel this? I did not.

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Frederick, Md.: What do you make of the absence of Ayers, etc., and the elephant in the room -- the new turn in the McCain campaign?

Robert G. Kaiser: You know, Ayers is a figure from 40 years ago, and McCain already has an out-of-touch problem. Ayers is not going to have an impact on this election in my opinion. I give McCain credit for ignoring him tonight.

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Columbus, Ga.: Mr. Kaiser, I think Obama won the debate. McCain did fine but he needed to come swinging to win it, and I'm afraid he didn't. I thought Obama related much better to middle-class voters. I can't remember the number of times he mentioned "middle-class," "budget/health care for working families," etc. I was wondering about your thoughts.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. I tend to agree, though I wondered at one point if the words "middle class" had come out of Obama's mouth a little too often to be genuine. Ear of the beholder, I guess.

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Re: Bethesda/Brokaw: I think McCain made more of an effort to "connect" with Brokaw, and Brokaw responded to that engagement. I wouldn't say it was bias, but McCain saw Brokaw as a member of the audience. Obama was there to win the town hall/debate/wrestling match and didn't see the moderator as the "goal." I don't think it was bias, truthfully; Tom Brokaw has tremendous integrity and proves that it must be really hard to serve as moderator. Thankless job?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Tom and McCain go way back, also a factor.

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Austin, Texas: What did you think of the time limits in this debate? Frankly it seemed to me like both candidates were going a little over early on, but I felt that they were using that time to provide very good thoughtful answers for the most part. I got very annoyed by Brokaw harping on the issue. I realize he wanted to wrap things up by 10:30 p.m., but c'mon. This is the most important election of the past 36 years -- I think we can stay up until 11 p.m. (or watch a little less vapid post-debate analysis by focus groups).

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you. Good comment -- I agree with it. But as Tom said, the candidates' agents negotiated this format, and he did have some obligation, as he said, to enforce it.

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Arlington, Va.: Out of the thousands of questions that real people sent in for this debate, why did it only seem like a repeat of the first debate? Do you think it would have been more interesting if they would have chosen more personal questions that asked them about their character, largest failures, etc.?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes I do.

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Alexandria, Va.: Is Meg Whitman a realistic choice for a Treasury Secretary? I thought she ran an Internet startup. And how likely is Warren Buffet to abandon his surplus at Berkshire to manage the debt of the nation? Seems like neither candidate had a plausible answer for who would oversee this huge bailout and economic fiasco. I thought they might have some credible economist or something to mention. Who advises these guys?

washingtonpost.com: Cabinet Maker (Congressional Quarterly)

Robert G. Kaiser: Neither is plausible. Chris has found an interesting interactive piece from CQ on cabinet-making, linked to here.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Just getting Stan Greenberg's analysis of his 50-member focus group. It broke "heavily" for Obama; his 50 moderate, undecided voters strongly thought Obama won, and voting preferences shifted strongly in Obama's favor. 42 percent of previously undecided voters said they are now for Obama, and his favorability ratings went way up.

This is not a poll, or a random sample. It is not scientific. But it is interesting.

"McCain is not wearing well, but Obama wears very well," Greenberg just said on a conference call I am tuned into. Remember, Stan is a Democrat, but a good professional too.

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Colorado Springs, Colo.: Did you think this format actually favored McCain? It seemed to me that it favored Obama because it highlighted his vitality vs. McCain's age.

Robert G. Kaiser: I think your point may turn out to be very important.

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La Jolla, Calif.: On the format, indeed, I loved it when the two candidates did follow-ups. It was almost a debate!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Bellevue, Wash.: I thought Sen. Obama won the debate; he seemed more thoughtful and organized, calmer and more personable. His aggressive answer about bin Laden was exceptional. His "calling out" of Sen. McCain on the bomb-Iran song was forceful. But his best answer was about the Iraq war, when he refused to be silenced by Tom Brokaw and completed an eloquent statement against the Iraq blunder.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Washington: Mr. Kaiser, we keep hearing about these "undecided voters." What percentage of Americans do you think are truly undecided, and what in your opinion would assist them in choosing a candidate? It's unclear to me whether or not the debates are enabling individuals to understand the issues or the candidates any better.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question, but I can't answer it. In our Washington Post-ABC poll we're down to less than 10 percent undecided, but we also have roughly 20 percent of those who declare a preference saying they still might change their minds. Who are these people? What will win them over? No idea.

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Fairfax, Va.: McCain needed to put a question mark on Obama's questionable judgment, relationships and lack of record. He needed to expose him as a rock star and not a leader for America. Unfortunately, he did not do that.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Savage, Md.: About Brokaw's question about Treasury secretary nominees -- are appointments of particular individuals ever discussed during a campaign?

Robert G. Kaiser: They are not, with very rare exceptions. Good point.

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Falls Church, Va.: NBC just replayed the ending handshake/half hug, and then the dash to get outta Brokaw's teleprompter, and McCain totally winked!

Robert G. Kaiser: Hooray!

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CBS Poll: Among undecideds, Obama wins. ... Here is something really telling: "Before the debate, 60 percent thought Obama understands voters' needs and problems; that rose to 80 percent after the debate. For McCain, 35 percent felt he understands voters' needs before the debate, and 46 percent thought so afterward." That can't be good for McCain.

Robert G. Kaiser: I am trusting you to have reported this accurately; it's not yet on the CBS Web site, I just discovered. If you are, then I thank you!

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Republican in Colorado: When the question came about how they would restore America's role as a peacemaker, McCain jumped in with how we would wage war and needed a strong economy to have a strong military. I think he missed the point.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Near Crawford, Texas: Can we swap the next presidential debate for another round with the vice presidential candidates? Please?

Robert G. Kaiser: Ask the McCain campaign! No, that isn't going to happen.

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Hayward, Wis.: A personnel manager, watching them for the first time, would hire which man for a complex executive position?

Robert G. Kaiser: Wonderful question. I was once a managing editor but never a personnel manager -- well, maybe I was in a way. I have to say that Obama probably would have an advantage based on age and body language alone. I think I'll avoid going any further down this path...

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Boston: Qualifier: I'm emphatically for Obama. McCain exceeded my expectations on the economy; Obama did the same on foreign policy. I thought that McCain fought Obama to a draw on the former, but that Obama beat McCain on the latter. The net was a slight victory for Obama, but it unfolded in a surprising way (for me).

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting, thanks.

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San Mateo, Calif.: I wasn't sure McCain understood the "right, privilege, or responsibility" question on health care -- I felt like he was groping. I loved Obama's answer, which was clear and decisive.

Robert G. Kaiser: That was a high point for me, because it didn't provoke a canned response.

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Anonymous: I agree with Bethesda, Md. -- Brokaw treated his timetable as holding greater importance than the issues the candidates were trying to talk to the American people about. In my estimation, Brokaw seemed old and fogeyish, and his actions consciously or unconsciously allowed McCain an unfair advantage. The pundits I have read agree that Brokaw was out of touch. Obama remained cool and collected.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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London: I find my first reaction to these debates changes over several days to a more fixed impression, which is sometimes quite different. My view of Gov. Palin in the vice presidential debate became more favorable days later than my first reaction after the debate. At the moment, I think Sen. Obama was the more presidential of the two tonight, but the brain obviously has both an instant and a considered reaction faculty.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting. Polls over here indicate that Palin did not make significant inroads into voter skepticism about her qualifications in that debate.

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San Jose, Calif.: On CNN, there was a real-time audience reaction meter running at the bottom of the screen throughout the debate. If this was a political EKG, then McCain flat-lined quite a lot of the time. How accurate do you think such real-time reaction meters are?

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Not very accurate, in my view.

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Dignity: While I don't plan to vote for him, I was glad to see that John McCain tonight did not engage in the kind of ugly trash-talking that he and Gov. Palin have put forth in the past few days. I would like to think of him as still being the honorable person of his 2000 campaign.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. It wasn't working for them, which may be a factor.

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Miami: Did anyone think Brokaw personally vetoed the town hall format by asking his own questions during the one-minute "discussion" periods set aside after the candidates answered? It seems like that time was designed for the candidates to rebut the other's answer, as opposed to let the moderate ask an unrelated (and long-winded) question of his own.

Robert G. Kaiser: The format allowed Tom to do that. The moderators have a lot of influence in these debates.

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Portland, Ore.: Did it stick out to you, early in the debate, when McCain told one of the questioners that he wouldn't be surprised if he had never heard of Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae before? It seemed a bit rude and awkward to me.

Robert G. Kaiser: Didn't see the point of it myself. Trying to be empathetic with the ignorant?

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Houston, Texas: Everyone wants to bail out the housing problem, but what about everyone who did it right? What help do they get for all the other problems facing us?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. I was taken aback by McCain's opening proposal, which if I understand it correctly would have a huge impact on the housing market, the banks, the holders of securitized mortgages, etc.

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Toledo, Ohio (yes, we stay up this late, sometimes!): I heard McCain say "confidence" and "trust" many times early in the debate. Whether he was trying to boost his own numbers or drive Obama's down, I'm not sure. His grandfatherly but firm performance tonight seemed aimed at countering Obama's (assumed) smooth elitism, but Obama didn't seem to take the bait. I didn't feel a greater trust or confidence in McCain, or less in Obama.

Robert G. Kaiser: And you are an Obama supporter?

Anyhow, thanks for staying up late!

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Bronxville, N.Y.: I thought the debate was singularly unenlightening -- mostly statements of high-flown aims without much in the way of specifics on how to get there. I was immensely gratified, however, to learn that McCain knows how to get Osama bin Laden and will get him no matter what, though he understandably can't tell us how. I can hardly wait.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. You know, there is a deep flaw in our presidential campaigns: they evoke promises that quite literally can never be kept. Congress passes the laws, creates the programs, spends the money -- presidents propose, Congress disposes.

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New Westminster, B.C.: Thank you for this forum and for your comments. The questions/comments from your readers and your responses are some of the best I've seen. Canadians are following this presidential election very closely; so is the world!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Ashland, Mo.: I so enjoy your chats because of your willingness to engage those with whom you disagree. They are my favorites. I wanted to comment on your last discussion where you were disturbed by the lack of respect for those with political ability. Perhaps the difference is what one thinks of upon hearing the word "politician." You may think of President Johnson passing civil rights legislation. More people today may think of Sen. Stevens funding the "bridge to nowhere." And many people may believe anyone in Washington today is much more likely to be the latter rather than the former.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Fairfax, Va.: I think tonight's debate helped to illustrate that the problems we currently face are bigger than either candidate is prepared to handle. That being said, I felt that there was a bit more meat to McCain's answers, but Obama's may have been better packaged, albeit much more partisan. I'd call McCain the winner, but agree that his win probably isn't game-changing at this point.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. As you can see above, I agree about not facing up to the crisis we are in...

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Virginia Beach, Va.: Thanks for taking our questions -- this is a great follow-up to the debate. What do you think about McCain's every other comment prefaced by "my friends." Was it his attempt to capture some of Palin's folksy connection and populist philosophy?

Robert G. Kaiser: Actually I thought it reflected McCain's nervousness tonight. He was the antsy one; Obama seemed much more comfortable. We know that McCain's aides try to knock "my friends" out of him, but they had no luck tonight.

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Washington: I wanted Hillary as my next president, but after tonight I am an Obama convert. Unlike the first debate where I simply was frustrated with their responses, I found this one enjoyable and engaging. Even though I have heard most of the candidates' points before, several times I found myself absolutely riveted by Obama. I particularly appreciated his response on health care as a "right," as well as his response on energy. In comparison, McCain seemed almost snarky and slick in tone. I think that the polls will show Obama won by a large percentage.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting. Thanks.

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New York: What do you think of the "second Holocaust" line? I squirmed each of the three times I heard it. Is that likely to resonate with Jewish voters?

Robert G. Kaiser: I don't know if it resonates. Palin has used it more than once, as has McCain earlier. It's in their playbook.

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Santa Rosa, Calif.: The thing I most appreciated was Obama mentioning bolstering the Peace Corps and involving everyone in our nation's mission rather than solely the military. Military solutions, excessive aggression and paranoia are decidedly out of of sync with what needs to occur in today's world. Increased diplomacy and foreign service while rebuilding our own country and confidence will exemplify leadership by example, as well as engendering much-needed unity of purpose

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Nashville, Tenn.: This debate was more problematic than the first because of its contrived format, but Obama won it. John McCain repeated his patented attacks, his standard wording ("my friends," etc), but he lost focus and blathered, and he referred to Obama as "that one." He seemed physically uncomfortable, and watching him roam in the background as Obama spoke was pretty painful. Obama was forced to correct McCain's distortions about his record, and that seemed to derail the "town hall" aspect. Neither candidate was stellar, but Obama clearly did better than McCain.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for a good comment.

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Madison, Wis.: Probably the most disturbing moment of the otherwise mostly uneventful debate for me was when Obama dropped an off-the-cuff comment about compromising with other countries in dealing with the financial crisis. This sounds to me like Obama is willing to cede a lot of sovereignty, or else that -- in addition to the mess of bailing out our own banks -- he is willing to help bail out foreign banks, too. I'm not sure how else to take his comment, but I'm partly curious to hear Obama elaborate, and partly cringing to imagine the U.S. try to negotiate an economic rescue with foreign countries. The United Nations and the World Trade Organization, after all, don't offer stellar models of international cooperation.

Robert G. Kaiser: Do you honestly think we can do such things entirely by ourselves?

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Alexandria, Va.: Is McCain still running with Sarah Palin? He never once said her name, but he mentioned Sen. Lieberman multiple times.

Robert G. Kaiser: Now that's an interesting observation. Makes me wonder if Palin's poor polling numbers have affected McCain?

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New York: One of the highlights for me was Obama's answer to the health care question. I think his passion for health care reform was articulated clearly and in detail. I guess my main concern with either candidate is how they are going to reconcile their goals/campaign promises with the current economic situation. I understand that neither wants to be specific about what agenda items will be put on hold, but I think that many voters (especially the young ones) may be disenchanted when campaign goals are not implemented, especially as they require the coordination with Congress.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.

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Pittsburgh: There was some entertainment value in tonight's debate. Brokaw: "Is Russia an evil empire?" McCain: (Wink.) "Maybe." Then he talks out loud through why it would be bad to say yes or no. This is not a pro.

Robert G. Kaiser: This will be the last comment tonight. We will be back one more time, next Wednesday. We're thrilled to have so many questions and comments from a huge audience all over the world. Thank you.

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washingtonpost.com: Come back tomorrow for washingtonpost.com's Debate Decoder, with video and an annotated transcript of tonight's debate.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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