Categorized | Election 08, Debates

Popcorn and Politics: Theater Crowd Sees Obama Victory at First Debate


EL CERRITO – A capacity crowd of more than 500 people gathered at the Cerrito Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito last night to watch the first debate between presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama.

Afterward, national pundits appeared hesitant to declare a victory for either candidate, but for Crystal Higgins, 44, of Concord, the victor was clear.

“Obama came out on top. He really showed us that he has what it takes to be our leader, to get us out of this rut that we’ve been in, and to earn us the respect again that Bush has lost for our country.”

Wearing pro-Obama t-shirts, hats, and buttons, the lively theater audience expressed seemingly unanimous support for the Democratic candidate, cheering loudly for Obama and booing enthusiastically for McCain throughout the 90-minute event.

“There’s no doubt who every single person in this theater is going to vote for,” said Michael McCarthy, 31, a law student at UC Berkeley.

Repeating established campaign themes, McCain took every opportunity to characterize Obama as too “naïve” and “inexperienced” to lead the country, while Obama frequently associated McCain with what he called the failed policies of the Bush administration.

In particular, Obama sought to connect the $10 billion a month America is currently spending in Iraq with the country’s lack of universal health care coverage and what he sees as an inadequate federal investment in education, science and technology, especially renewable energy projects.

David Wheeler, 30, of Pinole said he was impressed by Obama’s ability to communicate the cause and effect dynamics of complex issues and felt McCain spent too much time focusing on isolated policy positions.

“Obama was looking at the forest whereas McCain concentrated on the trees,” he said.

While neither candidate seemed to deliver any clear knockouts or major gaffes, both local reaction and national polling immediately following the debate showed increased public confidence in Obama’s ability to handle critical foreign policy and national security issues.

“I think there were a lot of questions about his foreign policy stance and whether or not he was capable of answering international threats,” said Gabrielle Rhodes-Dreyer, 23, of El Cerrito, “and I think he answered those questions very well.”

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp survey of debate watchers agreed, finding McCain’s edge on the question of which candidate would best handle terrorism had fallen to just four percent, 49 – 45.

Similarly, among a group of undecided Republican-leaning voters in St. Louis, Obama’s debate performance achieved significant gains on the question of who would do better on foreign policy (closing the gap with McCain by eight points), according to a set of dial and focus groups conducted during and after the debate by Democracy Corps, a national opinion research polling firm.

“I think that Obama showed his confidence and his capability and he seemed to take the higher ground,” said Sandhya Ramadas, 26, of Berkeley.

Against the backdrop of the nation’s impending financial crisis, moderator Jim Lehrer opened the foreign policy-themed debate by asking a series of questions about the economy and the Bush administration’s proposed $700 billion bailout.

McCain focused his economic arguments on government waste and greed, promising that as president he would veto all bills tainted with earmarks.

At one point, in response to a question on how he might cut back spending in the wake of the current financial crisis, McCain suggested he would consider a spending freeze on everything but defense, veteran’s affairs, and entitlement programs.

McCarthy, a law student and Obama supporter, was unconvinced. “I thought that McCain sounded very unsure during the economic portion of the debate. I thought he had an arguing strategy that is not very sympathetic to people.”

Obama countered by describing McCain’s economic plan as “using a hatchet where you need a scalpel” and said that “eliminating earmarks alone is not a recipe for how we are going to get the middle class back on track.”

“When you look at your tax policies that are directed primarily at those who are doing well, and you are neglecting people who are really struggling right now, I think that is a continuation of the last eight years, and we can’t afford another four,” Obama said.

Theater patrons seemed pleased that Lehrer chose to focus so much time – more than a third of the debate – on domestic policy issues. Nearly all felt Obama answered those questions more effectively than McCain.

“Foreign policy is important, but looking after people at home is even more important,” said Bill Higgins, 39, of Concord. “I think Obama wants to help guys like you and me, the little people, whereas all McCain is talking about it cutting taxes on big corporations.”

Leaving the theater, patrons were already discussing plans to come back on Oct. 2 to watch the vice-presidential debate between Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Joe Biden. Most appeared motivated by the anticipation of how Palin would perform.

For Hari O’Connell, a UC Berkeley law student, expectations were unmistakable.

“I’m hoping to see dramatic humiliation of Sarah Palin,” he said.

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