washingtonpost.com
Analysis: Final Presidential Debate

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Wednesday, October 15, 2008 10:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Wednesday, Oct. 15 at 10:30 p.m. ET to critique the performances of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama in their final presidential debate.

The transcript follows.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Hello everyone. It's hard to believe this year's debates are over already! I look forward to hearing from you, and will post as many comments and questions as I can in the next hour or so. Please feel free to provide your own commentary if you'd like. I also will try to answer your questions, as always.

I'm never confident that my personal reactions are significant at times like this -- I am hardly a typical viewer, and I don't know how this played with voters -- but I do think it's a safe bet that this debate did not change many minds. Barack Obama came into the debate clearly ahead, the polls tell us, and I don't think that will be changed by what we saw in the past 90 minutes.

I did find this the most real of the debates -- we got some real human interaction at that table. And Bob Schieffer wins my prize for best moderator -- he tried the hardest to keep the debaters on topic, and to evoke some new responses

The split screen -- used, it appears, on CBS, ABC, CNN and C-SPAN -- gave viewers a lot of nervous grins and raised eyebrows from McCain, and a lot of Obama grins too. How did that play? I'd love to hear opinions. Once again, I had the sense that Obama looked a lot more comfortable debating than McCain did.

Now over to you.

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Durham, N.C.: This feels like the first debate where the moderator has been able to move the candidates to engage beyond talking points. Do you agree? Do you think it was Schieffer's moderation, the format, McCain throwing caution to the wind in face of bad polls, or some other factor?

Robert G. Kaiser: Schieffer deserves some of the credit, and the table does too. And maybe we should credit the candidates as well. It was the best of the three debates, I thought.

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DeKalb, Ill.: I think the question about negative campaigning initiated an unnecessary negative response. As a college student who has the possibility to be largely affected by the next president, it seemed pointless to ask such a question, opening the door for the candidates to continue to make attacks on each other. While I realize that most people already have made their decision, the negative personal attacks, I felt, did not deserve the amount of attention they received in this final debate, so close to the election with so many more national problems to discuss.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good point, but Schieffer tried to do something original and potentially significant by asking them to repeat at the table, to each other, the charges they have made in commercials. McCain partially took him up on that with his remarks on Bill Ayers, which I suspect won him zero votes. Obama took a pass, didn't he?

This is not the place for a dissertation on negative campaigning, but it has a 30-year history now, and is ingrained in our politics.

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London: It's 3:30 a.m. here in England, but that debate was well worth staying up for! It was definitely the most lively and interesting of all the others, and I thought Schieffer did the best job in asking tough, pointed questions and making sure the candidates didn't get away with pat responses. As for the "verdict," is it just me, or did Obama crush McCain? I thought the other debates were fairly close, but Obama seemed vastly more in-touch, youthful and intelligent than his opponent. In particular, he really seemed to take the high road when it came to the discussion of negative campaigning.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks -- I'm glad we agree about this being the most interesting one. Did Obama crush McCain? I just cannot say.

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New York: I thought this was McCain's best performance. That said, I still found him angry, sarcastic and the more negative of the two. I agree that Bob Schieffer was the best of the moderators. On taxes and health care, there have been so many claims and counterclaims, that I suspect it is hard for most of us to know what is correct and what is not. Question: Are the concluding remarks read from a teleprompter?

washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker blog addressed several of the tax claims made during the debate.

Robert G. Kaiser: Producer Chris Hopkins here provides a link to The Fact-Checker, who is having a good night in my opinion. (He always has a good night!.)

No teleprompters allowed -- they had to memorize.

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Dallas: Finally, McCain took the offense. Do you believe tonight's debate was enough to shift the polls a little bit in favor of McCain? Thanks!

Robert G. Kaiser: Maybe a bit, but I doubt very much. But I could be wrong!

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Falls Church, Va.: This way by far the best debate! The candidates talked about important issues, they had enough time to discuss each question and the responded to each other. The moderator was fair. What do you think the biggest takeaway is from this debate? The most memorable point?

Robert G. Kaiser: A consensus is emerging...

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Washington: Considering that McCain failed to deliver the much needed "knockout blow" in this debate, will the media continue to be surprised as Obama pulls away in the polls?

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, I can't speak for "the media." I can point out how wildly wrong many of the pundits and talking heads have been during this long campaign, way back to the inevitability of McCain's defeat in the Republican primaries and Hillary Clinton's victory. It has been a bad year for them.

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Chantilly, Va.: This finally seemed like more of a debate than a dual press conference, and I was glad I to hear the candidates' responses to some of each other's most common attack ads. On another note, I was really struck by some of McCain's more extreme facial expressions. They were kind of funny, charming, and scary at the same time.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Re: Abortion: Overall, I thought Schieffer did a tremendous job, but I think we need to move beyond the "litmus test" question on the abortion issue. If you think a Democrat is going to nominate someone who isn't pro-choice, you're crazy. If you think a Republican is going to nominate someone who isn't pro-life, you're crazy. But what are reasonable restrictions? What about waiting periods and parental consent? What about the morning after pill? What about going beyond abstinence-only education in high schools?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think McCain did admit that no one who supported Roe v. Wade would be appointed to the Supreme Court by him, didn't he? And Obama did talk about restrictions, no?

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San Francisco: Has Sen. Obama spent the most on negative ad campaigns ever?

Robert G. Kaiser: I have no idea, but I think what McCain was basing this on was the fact that Obama is spending more on all forms of advertising than any candidate ever has (as every television viewer in America must realize by now) because he rejected public financing and raised so much money. In fact, most Obama commercials are not negative, but the portion that is has cost a lot of money. Because "negative" is a subjective judgment, I doubt this argument can be resolved.

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Baltimore: Schieffer mismanaged this big time. He allowed for follow-ups, so I give him credit for that, but he spent 15 minutes on attacks, and it seemed like very few questions were asked overall, given the amount of time.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this -- which, I've already made clear, I disagree with, but so what?

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Blacksburg, Va.: My husband and I had very different reactions to the debates, ones that matched our gender's insta-polling on CNN. I thought Obama came off as presidential, strong and looking for common ground, and McCain came off looking like a bully. I cringed when McCain would interrupt with a harsh attack. My husband thought that McCain did very well, certainly better than any of his previous debates. Do you think this debate will have more of an effect than others?

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting, thanks. Of course, the way you describe it you both could be right!

As I've said, I think this debate doesn't change the game.

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Arlington, Mass.: Regarding the negativity question, I thought that Obama came across as being unable to stand up to McCain, as opposed to just restraining himself from responding strongly.

Robert G. Kaiser: I wonder who you are supporting. Hah.

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Arlington, Va.: McCain was big on the attack. Obama retaliated a bit, but mainly just sat back. McCain seemed a bit snide and sniping at times. How do you see this being received?

Robert G. Kaiser: The new CBS-New York Times poll suggests that McCain has paid a significant price for his negativity thus far, and I don't think what we heard tonight helped him a lot, as noted already.

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Wellington, New Zealand: Will you have any polling data on the debates for us tonight?

Robert G. Kaiser: The Stanley Greenberg polling organization again has a bunch of "undecided" voters, whose reaction will be reported in a conference call at 10:55 p.m. I'll listen and give you a report.

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Palo Alto, Calif.: Definitely the best debate of the three. I thought Senator McCain performed far better than in previous debates, but still the basic lack of substance in his approach to topics such as health care, the environment and education became steadily more clear with each give and take between him and Sen. Obama. I felt that Senator Obama gave a weaker performance than the past three but still was the superior of the two. Do you think the success of this debate will prompt more "roundtable discussions" in presidential debates in the future? The format seems far superior to both the traditional debate and the town hall.

Robert G. Kaiser: I wouldn't be surprised if this format caught on in the future. The debate commission has favored it in the past, but the campaigns get to decide, alas.

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New York: Not a bad night for Schieffer, but really, is calling someone "erratic" is the same as accusing him of "palling around with terrorists"? This is media equivalence at its most foolish.

Robert G. Kaiser: Agreed.

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Woodstock, N.Y.: I thought that the moderator wanted to start a thing about Palin, but Obama didn't bite into it? Do you think it was a smart move or a lost opportunity?

Robert G. Kaiser: It probably was smart. Gov. Palin frankly has proven to be a huge drag on the Republican ticket, and all the polling confirms this. McCain's defense of her followed by his own statement reminding everyone how much experience Joe Biden has in foreign policy was quietly powerful I thought. I suspect the Obama camp decided in advance that they didn't have to do anything about Palin -- Tina Fey and Katie Couric did it all for them.

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Berryville, Va.: I am an Obama supporter, but am disappointed, again, that he failed to use his legal expertise to fully address issues respecting the reversal of Roe v Wade. It was his best effort thus far, but he has been in the best position of any recent Democrat to explain the import of a constitutionally protected right, and the significance of stare decisis, and he did not give it his best effort. And it is unfortunate that the issue continues to be presented as one of "morality" respecting the rights of the "unborn," as though the rights of a living adult citizen are insignificant by comparison.

Democratic candidates will continue to lose votes unnecessarily so long as they appear to be defending a morally weak position respecting Roe, and it's just a shame that Barack did not better defend the Constitutional underpinnings of the decision for the protection of basic individual rights. His political response was weak. A legal response would have been strong. Also, Bob Schieffer has improved with age and experience. He's the man.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Denver: I had to respond to this. You wrote that "this is not the place for a dissertation on negative campaigning, but it has a 30-year history now and is ingrained in our politics." John Adams distributed pamphlets saying that if Thomas Jefferson was elected president, prostitutes would start operating out of churches. Andrew Jackson was accused of murdering six people in cold blood in the Coffin Handbill. Negative campaigning is much older than 30 years.

Robert G. Kaiser: See, I told you I shouldn't get into it! Yes, I know this history and a lot more besides, but there were no 30-second attack ads then -- they started in a significant way in 1978, and they aren't the same as 19th-century negative campaigning, in my view.

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Spokane, Wash.: I support Obama, but I think McCain did very well at this debate -- I might even say better than Obama. He definitely appeared to be in better form than at the town hall "debate" (or was it debacle?) He was much more specific in his answers than before. Obama still reiterated what we've heard time and again (and not much more specific, either). However, McCain hasn't seemed to have improved on the issue of health care. I was very pleased with the honesty and depth of the discussion tonight.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Oakton, Va.: McCain repeatedly mentioned Obama's refusal to take part in a number of additional town meeting-style get-togethers. Do you know why this is? What effect do you think McCain's again mentioning this will have on the American people? Does this matter to them? Would more meetings have benefited one of the candidates more than the other?

Robert G. Kaiser: Good question. The Obama camp never really has explained its position on this, but my hunch is that they had a game plan in place when McCain began to revive the town-hall idea, and they didn't want to abandon it. Part of the game plan was to take advantage of what has turned out to be a huge money advantage, which might have been largely neutralized by a long series of town halls that networks would have covered, perhaps, for free. But this is something we need to learn more about.

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Ames, Iowa: No one sighed. No one checked his watch. (I do wonder whatever happened the lockbox that was so popular in 2000?) When Obama passed up on a clear chance to comment unfavorably on Palin's qualifications, I thought it was a tad churlish for McCain to then snipe at Biden (who has taken some pains to note that he and McCain have worked together in the past).

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. Churlish and probably a little dumb, given that what McCain said about Biden must have reminded a lot of people that no one could have disagreements with Palin's positions (what positions?) on national security issues.

Congress and the Bush administration cleaned out the lockbox early in the first Bush term, when he cut taxes and returned us into the red.

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Arlington, Mass.: "Arlington, Mass.: Regarding the negativity question, I thought that Obama came across as being unable to stand up to McCain, as opposed to just restraining himself from responding strongly. Robert G. Kaiser: I wonder who you are supporting. Hah."

In fact, I'm an Obama supporter. What I'm remembering is the debate between Dukakis and Bush Sr., where the former came off as too cool and detached when asked about how he would feel if his wife were raped.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. In that case, I just disagree with you. I knew Michael Dukakis, and Barack Obama is no Michael Dukakis.

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New York: This was definitely the most interesting debate so far. I knew that McCain would be trying to be aggressive in this one because of the polls -- he needed a big break in order to have a hint of a chance at this election. I don't think he got it. I thought Obama was more specific on the economy, giving strong arguments for helping the middle class and students, while it seemed that McCain was sticking to his talking points.

One question: People are saying Obama was "off," but it didn't seem that way to me at all -- I thought he was totally on game tonight. Any thoughts on this point? By the way, my favorite part was when Obama said "If you'll let me, I'd like to talk to Joe, too."

Robert G. Kaiser: I think "off" is one of those judgments that reside in the eyes of the beholder. I thought Obama was just a little edgy tonight -- probably because he knew all he had to fear was making a goof.

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Richmond, Va.: Is there any sense of whether this debate would be watched as much as, more than, or less than the other two? I can't tell if the public is debated-out by now or still wanted to hear more. Do you know one way or the other?

Robert G. Kaiser: Won't know until tomorrow. I bet it was a big audience.

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Joe the Plumber: I think Obama wisely chose to avoid multiple town hall meetings -- I think most of us would have tuned out by now, and that the freshness and novelty of Obama would have been diminished in that kind of constant discussion. Frankly, McCain would not have been well-served by additional town hall meetings and should thank his lucky stars they never happened.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Joe the Plumber: www.joetheplumber.com is a guy in Amarillo, Texas. Really! He's the real winner tonight!

Robert G. Kaiser: You betcha!

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Chicago: Did either candidate rise to today's extraordinary times and provide any big answers to the economic crisis that is roaring down our streets? I am afraid not. This is the one pressing, dramatic and dangerous issue that really could provide -- and I would argue where we desperately need -- a game-changer.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Asuncion, Paraguay: Hi Bob. I thought for the first 25 minutes McCain really had Obama on the defensive. Obama's campaign said they knew McCain would come out aggressively, but Obama acted shocked and off-balance. It's tough to understand how he came in so unprepared for what was so clearly going to be a barn-burner. I never thought he really recovered, though he finished well. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I didn't see that, sorry.

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First poll results: CBS news poll of undecideds found 53 percent thought Obama won, while 22 percent thought McCain did. ... I believe this is the largest difference of all debates.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks. In a couple of minutes I'll report on Stan Greenberg's focus group of McCain-leaning undecideds in Denver, which came to a similar conclusion.

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Robert G. Kaiser: Here's a report from the Greenberg Quinlan Rosner focus group of undecided voters in Denver, all of whom said they were leaning toward McCain before the debate began:

The results of this one "look more decisive than the first two," Stan Greenberg just reported. Both of those groups, after the first two debates, thought Obama won cleanly. This one came to the same conclusion more decisively.

"If Sen. McCain was looking for a break in this race, there is absolutely nothing in this reaction that would do that." McCain was seen much less favorably after the debate than before it. And Obama got "an astonishing result," Greenberg says -- a dramatic increase in his "favorability" as a result of the debate.

"The big gains that Obama made were on things that matter." Many more thought Obama "shares my values." He got a very positive response on education and health care.

Who is a stronger leader? McCain had a big advantage before the debate began, and a much smaller one afterwards.

Another interesting result: The group was 50-50 on who would handle the financial crisis best before the debate, and overwhelmingly for Obama on that issue afterward.

So these voters' thoughts -- it's not a scientific poll, but is an interesting collection of anecdotal evidence -- suggest that McCain made no headway tonight, while Obama made a lot of progress.

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Potomac, Md.: Do you think many people will regard Obama's cool(er) responses to McCain's accusations as wimpy? I understand it would not be politically correct to lay into Palin but...

Robert G. Kaiser: I do not. Obama's cool seems to be going down very well, judging by the polls.

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Vienna, Va.: I thought Obama was much stronger, clearer on substance, but I think he missed an opportunity to invoke a grace note on the John Lewis question. It would have been nice had Obama said that John McCain is a good, patriotic man, but they disagree on many issues. Aside from all else, perhaps McCain would have reciprocated and then we could have gotten back to issues sooner.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Re: Abortion: Did I really hear McCain say that the health of the mother shouldn't be considered in abortion? That seems a bit out of the mainstream, doesn't it?

Robert G. Kaiser: Well, he said that invoking the health of the mother was a ploy increasingly used by the "pro-abortion" forces. I have a hunch that did not play well with women who aren't fervidly pro-life.

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Debate Moderators: All three presidential debates have been moderated older, white men. I believe the average age of a debate moderator is 71. I think this is an advantage to Obama. Visually the appearance is two "old guys" and one more youthful, more energetic guy. This also made me think about the newscasters themselves: Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe a single national nightly news show on cable, broadcast or public television is lead by an African American man. Not one. I know there are commentators and interviewees and lots of local news anchors that are African American men, but not nationally.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for an intriguing -- and accurate -- comment.

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Helena, Mont.: I still don't understand why McCain emphasizes his disagreement with the Republican Party and then complains that Obama doesn't have disagreements with the Democratic Party. It seems to me that if you don't agree with your party, you are free to just up and leave. To run with an "R" after your name and then try to get votes based on how you really aren't a Republican is not very reassuring.

Robert G. Kaiser: Hey, he's a maverick.

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Philadelphia: Robert, I know that toward the end of campaigns things can get very heated, but do you think McCain and Obama even respect each other at this point? Maybe McCain is a little more obvious with his body language during the debate, but it feels like both men really hate each other.

Robert G. Kaiser: "Hate" might be a little strong -- I've had the impression from the outset that McCain holds Obama in what you might call minimal high regard. I think Obama's disdain for his opponent has been growing steadily.

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Ammon, Idaho: I watched "Frontline" last night and came away feeling comfortable about the character and experience of both candidates. I felt no need to watch tonight's debate. I am pleased to hear that it was more substantive than I expected. I would recommend your viewers check out the PBS program for more insight. It beats watching ads or watching political posturing.

washingtonpost.com: PBS Frontline: 'The Choice 2008'

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for your comment. I missed the PBS documentary myself, but I bet you could learn even more from reading detailed stories in the best newspapers (this is an old prejudice of mine, of course). Abve is a link to the PBS show, and then below is a link to a terrific story about McCain that ran in The Washington Post this past weekend.

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washingtonpost.com: Seeing White House From a Cell in Hanoi (Post, Oct. 13)

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New Orleans: Robert, the media is criticized daily as "in the tank" for Obama. Can you settle a bet for me? The last time a vice presidential candidate was an unproven nobody with little elective experience, did The Washington Post pounce like you are on Palin? Can you compare and contrast your coverage of John Edwards, who I believe was a one-term senator when he was Kerry's vice presidential nominee, with your coverage of Palin?

Robert G. Kaiser: I haven't done the homework to be able to provide a serious comparison, but I do wonder if the two really are comparable. Edwards had run a plausible campaign for president when he was chosen as Kerry's running mate. He had won the admiration of many Democrats and a lot of others too (he may not have it anymore, but that's another matter). He was no lightweight, though he was not heavy on foreign policy either. He was able to answer -- and did answer -- reporters' questions for a long year before he became the vice presidential candidate.

In my experience (45 years of this so far), no previous candidate was in Palin's class.

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Melbourne, Australia: Watching the debate from far-away Australia, John McCain describes Obama as "eloquent" in his speech. For me a president should be eloquent, and I think would make a refreshing change from the past eight years, particularly in terms of foreign perception of America (George Bush probably not being the most eloquent president ever)! Is this important for you and Americans?

Robert G. Kaiser: I think Obama's eloquence has been a huge boon to his candidacy. I suspect McCain thinks that too. He was, I thought, trying to turn his own lack of eloquence into some sort of straight-talking advantage with those comments. I doubt he succeeded.

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Oviedo, Fla.: For this lifelong Democrat -- McCain rocked it. He did cite a lot more experience and put the rest to the energizer-bunny "no more of the same eight years." That is too simplistic, and I was impressed at the decisiveness with which McCain stood up for himself. Obama sometimes has micro-expressions that he is challenged; I think he is too accustomed to rooms (or halls) full of quiet people listening to him and nodding. Game not over, but we had a good debate. Obama is losing me...

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Obama supporter here, and I thought he came out a little flat. I thought this was McCain's best effort. I'm a little surprised to see the instant polls tilting so strongly toward Obama. I think the bottom line is that people have decided they just don't like McCain.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this as well.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Am I the only one that thought McCain came off really angry tonight? It was really off-putting.

Robert G. Kaiser: Another precinct heard from...

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Minneapolis: Super secret kung fu political move by McCain! Remember when a few months ago, everyone was wondering why Sen. McCain was disappearing off the face of the earth to make a trip to Colombia? What possible purpose could it serve? He was missing out on crucial press support, which was being directed to Senators Obama and Clinton. ... Well, it was all a strategic move to set Sen. Obama up for the third and final debate, when he could bring up an obscure free trade agreement and accuse Sen. Obama of making the wrong vote and -- wait for it -- not even bothering to ever travel south of the border! Brilliant strategic political move, Sen. McCain!

Robert G. Kaiser: You think?

I know, I know, you Minnesotans are comics. Like Al Franken.

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Clarendon Hills, Ill.: I'm surprised not to read very many "Joe the plumber" comments. McCain must have brought Joe up a good 10 times or more. Frankly, to me, McCain going back and back to Joe the Plumber was just goofy. If a plumber makes $250,000 a year, I just don't think most Americans will be that worried about him (or believe he was a plumber...)

Robert G. Kaiser: Cynic.

I agree with you.

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Undecideds: The bottom line is that these two candidates are really only talking to about 10 percent to 15 percent of the public. It appears, based on the past few weeks, that the undecided voters really want to hear solutions and not attacks. In that regard, I think Obama won this debate. He was even-keeled and McCain came off as angry. What are your thoughts? By the way -- these two are so different -- what people are still undecided? Do they live under a rock?

Robert G. Kaiser: See the report above from the Denver focus group. And thanks for posting.

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"I do not believe a single national nightly news show on cable, broadcast or public television is lead by an African American man ...": Lester Holt anchors the weekend NBC Nightly News, and he is one of the best in the business.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you. I guess I never watch on Sunday nights -- football is on.

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Arlington, Va.: I'm an Obama supporter, and I think he debated the way the Redskins play football: not to lose. He's ahead in the polls and he thinks he can coast to victory by avoiding mistakes and hoping his opponent beats himself. Is that really wise? We've seen lots of elections -- Reagan/Carter comes to mind -- with huge last-minute swings. Why not keep fighting? McCain was beating him over the head with Ayers and ACORN and massive new spending -- he even called him "Sen. Government"! The Redskins' record in the past few years pretty much shows you the value of "playing not to lose."

Robert G. Kaiser: Under Jim Zorn, I don't think the Redskins now deserve that rap. Also, I see no basis for comparing Obama of '08 to Carter of '80. It's much more likely that Obama is comparable to Reagan of '80.

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Sea Isle City, N.J.: Sen Obama claims John McCain will tax health benefits. Is this correct? What would that mean to seniors?

Robert G. Kaiser: Yes it is correct. Seniors are on Medicare, which would not be taxed like private insurance.

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Maryland: You Post chatters are the best. In the old days (primary season) I got the debate Internet rundown from the New York Times Caucus, but they got nothin' on you.

Robert G. Kaiser: An excellent point! And thank you.

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San Jose, Calif.: I have a totally different view about Bob Schieffer. To ask for a number on how much imported oil would be saved by the candidates' energy plans during the next president's first term was, I thought, downright silly. And when McCain went on and on about all those clean coal and nuclear plants ... does Schieffer have a clue about how long it takes to bring a new nuclear or new-technology coal plant on line? McCain certainly didn't. But Schieffer never followed up about some of the vaporous ideas they came up with. This was no debate. American presidential candidates don't debate!

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks.

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Philadelphia: Definitely thought this was the best of the debates. We have an inconsequential question, but one that has been bugging us. Is there any coordination between the campaigns (perhaps in the pre-date agreement) about the color of their ties? Tonight Obama wore a red-striped tie, and McCain a blue striped tie ... coincidence?

Robert G. Kaiser: I never have heard of any wardrobe coordination. I doubt it happens.

Thanks for posting.

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Bismarck, N.D.: The progression of the three debates has been fascinating as the two candidates have refined their debate styles in relation to one another. McCain won the first debate against a seemingly flustered Obama, who wasted a significant amount of time defending himself. The second contest actually was perhaps "a draw" as so many pundits carefully opined -- but primarily because of the lack of substance in favor of talking points by both candidates. By this third debate, Obama was in control and able to stay on-task, making McCain's attacks seem desperate and, frankly, "erratic."

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting comment, but according to every poll I have seen, it's also wrong. Obama clearly won both of the first two debates, according to our poll, the New York Times-CBS poll, the Pew Center poll and the NBC-Wall Street Journal poll.

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Cincinnati: It's funny -- left-leaning media like The Washington Post saw an Obama first-round knockout. I didn't see that at all. I noticed that every Obama proposal included spending more money -- my money. I noticed that Joe the Plumber landed some punches on Obama that McCain couldn't. (By the way, is that guy a Republican plant? If so, the Republicans should teach Hillary how to plant a questioner in a crowd!) Is it just because I'm a grouchy white guy from Ohio?

Robert G. Kaiser: No, it's just because you have your own opinions, as you should! One of my previous replies reports on what the polls found, but none of them were unanimous. You have lots of company. Those who thought Obama won have even more company.

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Kingston, Ontario: Is it just me, or has John McCain repeatedly confused autism with Down Syndrome? He kept referring to autism and stating that "Sarah Palin understands this better than most people" ... however, her youngest child was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, not autism.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting. I know of no expertise that Palin brings on autism, but wonder if I have missed something? Or perhaps you figured it out. Sorry, can't clear it up.

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Chicago: I thought Bob Schieffer's query on negative adds was genius. Okay, you two have said some pretty low things about each other in advertisements ... either of you have the guts to say it across the table? McCain swallowed the bait and gave Obama the enviable opportunity to refute the Ayers charges in a logical and measured response to millions of Americans. Obama couldn't have paid enough for a better opportunity and venue to rebut all of McCain's and Palin's attack. Then Obama, in response to the same question, went "general" -- giving McCain no similar opportunity to hit the softball.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thank you -- and thanks to everyone for taking part in our chat, another interesting one from my perspective.

I'll be back for a marathon discussion on Election Night, and look forward to it. I think we'll start around 7 p.m., but there will be an announcement on the washingtonpost.com homepage that day. Please join us then. Chris Hopkins is lining up a lot of other guests to allow me to perform certain vital functions during the night.

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