TV's Take: McCain Too Sarcastic and Conservative, Obama in Center

Recapping Wednesday's presidential debate TV journalists were struck with how Barack Obama conveyed an “appeal to the center” while a “sarcastic” John McCain showed “disdain and contempt” and was hurt by being too much of a right-wing “ideologue” whose  “worst moment” came when he raised the name of William Ayers.

Also noteworthy: On NBC, Ann Curry pressed six undecided voters to “raise your hand if you know of people, and be honest here, who may not vote for Barack Obama because of his race.” And NBC anchor Brian Williams asked Hillary Clinton to assess Sarah Palin: “Is Governor Palin qualified to be Vice President or President?”

On “Nightline,” George Stephanopoulos went three for three for the Democrat -- four for four if you add in Biden over Palin -- in declaring Obama the “winner.” Read on for our recap.

CBS's Jeff Greenfield shared how “the question I have...is whether or not McCain at some point in this debate went beyond assertiveness into a more negative, almost sarcastic portrayal.” Katie Couric soon hit Dan Barlett with the same charge. Over on ABC, Stephanopoulos argued McCain citing Ayers was “one of his worst moments in the debate, because Obama seemed to be inviting him to talk about issues that people are talking about back home. Instead he went on the attack.” Chuck Todd, on NBC, conceded McCain supporters “are going to be very excited about his performance tonight,” but he hailed how Obama “would try to mention something that seemed to appeal to the center, whether it was charter schools” or abortion “he tried everything he could to go into the middle.”

At the top of the midnight EDT “Hardball” on MSNBC, Newsweek's Howard Fineman scolded McCain for “arguing about the size of government and saying that Barack Obama was a big taxer and a big spender.” Fineman contended Obama is no liberal since his proposals are “very carefully constructed not to be like that” and “the American people are tired of ideologues. And McCain came off as a very earnest and focused ideologue and that’s not what the American people seem to want.”

Politico's Roger Simon chipped in that McCain's problem is “that he's deep into this movement Republicanism” and so, Simon mocked, “he's talking about oh, 'Barack Obama wants to spread the wealth.' That's some bad thing?” Fineman summarized: “He was speaking to the readers of the National Review and not to the undecided voters.”

Earlier, in the 10:30 PM EDT half-hour following the debate, Chris Matthews maintained McCain's abortion talk turned off potential voters:

Well I believe that it was a big mistake made by John McCain tonight with regard to abortion rights. If his goal was to win over the Hillary Clinton voter or older women or younger women in Florida, or in southeastern Pennsylvania, I think he blew it tonight. You can’t belittle the health exception.
A little past 11 PM EDT on CNN, Gloria Borger complained about McCain's “facial expressions, those grimaces” and David Gergen fretted “the looks and the disdain and the contempt and the anger that he felt was palpable.”

Obama won the debate according to the CBS and CNN surveys. In the CBS News/Knowledge Networks poll of 500 uncommitted voters, 53 percent picked Obama as the winner, 22 percent went with McCain and 24 percent called it a tie. The CNN/Opinion Research poll had Obama as the winner by 58 to 31 percent.

Fuller versions of the quotes from the coverage after the Wednesday, October 15 debate:

ABC News:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: I think he did make a tactical mistake halfway through the debate. You're talking about, Senator Obama was talking about, listen, let's talk about issues that matter to people out there, not the different charges we're making against each other. After he did that, Senator McCain, unprompted, brought up the issue of Bill Ayers. I think that is a point that is likely to be one of his worst moments in the debate, because Obama seemed to be inviting him to talk about issues that people are talking about back home. Instead he went on the attack. And I think that will be looked to be a mistake in this debate.

CBS News:
JEFF GREENFIELD: Yeah, it was the degree to which Senator McCain, from the get-go, wanted to make the case about Barack Obama's character. Talking about reneging on public financing, not telling the truth about ACORN and saying to people “look beyond his eloquence to see what he's really saying.” This was how I think McCain was trying to make the case that the man who now leads in the polls is not ready.

And the question I have -- and we'll hear from our voters and we'll see in the polls -- is whether or not McCain at some point in this debate went beyond assertiveness into a more negative, almost sarcastic portrayal. I thought Obama was a little bit on the defensive in the first part of the debate and as the debate went on became more like the Obama of the first two debates when they got into policy arguments. So clearly we saw what McCain's strategy was. Whether or not that's going to work, as I keep saying, we're not going to know tonight, we're going to know in the next 48 or 72 hours.

....

COURIC TO DAN BARTLETT: What did you think of his tone? Was he respectfully pugnacious or did he cross the line towards the end, as some people seem to think he was sort of rolling his eyes when Barack Obama was responding and sort of making some sarcastic comments. Do you think that was all sort of within the respectful category for Senator McCain?

NBC News:
TOM BROKAW: I'm always reluctant, as you know, to declare a winner in all of these. Tonight I'm going to break with that precedent. And Joe, you're the winner. Joe plumber.

CHUCK TODD: John McCain spent a lot of time on issues that his base cares about and that Republicans -- I think there are going to be Republican supporters of John McCain are going to be very excited about his performance tonight. The question is, how did he do in the middle? It was interesting to watch Obama tonight. At every moment he had, he would try to mention something that seemed to appeal to the center, whether it was charter schools or something else talking about abortion in terms of ways of not just assuming that his position is the right position. He tried everything he could to go into the middle, it seemed tonight. While McCain, while again, I think his supporters are going to be very excited about his performance, they're going to be glad he was aggressive tonight, showing that he's not going to go down without a fight. The question is, how did he do in the middle? And I think that's going to be the thing I'm looking for to see these various focus groups and polls and we see how they react to this debate tonight.”
Ann Curry with six undecided voters in Leesburg, Virginia:
CURRY: Raise your hand if you know of people, and be honest here, who may not vote for Barack Obama because of his race. Be honest here. Be honest here. That's only three. Raise your hand if you believe that people may not vote for John McCain because of Sarah Palin? Six. That's surprising. Now why is that, Joan?

JOAN: I think the general public at large thinks that she's not qualified or doesn't have the experience.

CURRY:  So you think that the six of you believe that she's been more of a liability than a help to John McCain?

MULTIPLE VOICES: Absolutely.
....
WILLIAMS TO HILLARY CLINTON: Senator, quick question, is Governor Palin qualified to be Vice President or President?

CNN, 11:04 PM EDT:
GLORIA BORGER: I think if McCain made any mistakes this time, I think he made all the points he wanted to make on substance, but again it's those facial expressions, those grimaces. Sometimes you could tell how angry he is at Barack Obama, how much he doesn't like Barack Obama. And in each of these three debates he's been unable to hide his kind of personal feelings.

ANDERSON COOPER: It is interesting to see both men, when they do look at each other -- I mean, John McCain did look at Barack Obama this time around -- Barack Obama seemed to smile a lot more, John McCain kind of shake his head, laugh even some times at some of the attacks. John McCain seemed to seethe at times and it certainly looked, I mean I think you can fairly say with some contempt at times. Does all that matter?

DAVID GERGEN: Yes. It matters a great deal. I think very importantly there were a lot of rumors that John McCain was going to try to goad Barack Obama into some kind of outburst and he never unnerved Obama the whole time. I thought one thing -- as flat as Obama was at times, he never lost his cool, he never lost his steadiness, whereas McCain seemed at times, thee were times he brought back memories of Bob Dole in 1996. And that was, as we remember, a disastrous time for Bob Dole. I don't think McCain went that far, but the looks and the disdain and the contempt and the anger that he felt was palpable throughout the middle section of the debate.
 
MSNBC, 10:30 PM EDT half hour (MSNBC and Hardball quotes caught by the MRC's Geoff Dickens):
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Well I believe that it was a big mistake made by John McCain tonight with regard to abortion rights. If his goal was to win over the Hillary Clinton voter or older women or younger women in Florida, or in southeastern Pennsylvania, I think he blew it tonight. You can’t belittle the health exception, with regard to abortion. You cannot belittle a woman and her doctor saying there’s a health reason for an abortion, even in late term. You can’t belittle it. You can’t simply say only her health would permit, or rather her, her possible death would permit an abortion. The health exception is in Roe v. Wade you cannot belittle it, you cannot characterize it in any diminutive way. He did that tonight. It’s gonna kill him with pro-choice women across the board.

Hardball at midnight EDT:
HOWARD FINEMAN: McCain did a great job tonight stating a case for a debate that might have taken place 20 years ago. It seemed that he was arguing about the size of government and saying that Barack Obama was a big taxer and a big spender. There a few problems with that. First of all, Obama’s proposals aren’t like that, number one. They’re very carefully constructed not to be like that. Number two, Obama, as a person, personally, doesn’t come off like a wild-eyed character. And number three the American people are tired of ideologues. And McCain came off as a very earnest and focused ideologue and that’s not what the American people seem to want at this point.

MATTHEWS: Did he come across the way that Rahm Emanuel, one of the top Democratic leaders from Illinois portrayed him tonight, on Keith’s show, before, before the debate tonight. He said, “He’s a grumpy old man in slippers?” Is he that guy? The Mr. Wilson from the “Dennis the Menace,” comics?

FINEMAN: Get your newspaper off my lawn!

MATTHEWS: Is he Simpson, Homer Simpson?

ROGER SIMON, POLITICO: His real problem tonight is the one Howard identified, that he's deep into this movement Republicanism now because he has to keep the base close to him because that's the only people who are close to him, so he's talking about oh, “Barack Obama wants to 'spread the wealth.'” That's some bad thing? “He wants to save the life of the mother!”

FINEMAN: He was speaking to the readers of the National Review and not to the undecided voters.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center