Categorized | Politics

Candidate Gestures Speak Louder Than Words at Final Debate

BY MATT DURNING //

EL CERRITO  – The final debate of the 2008 presidential campaign reinforced stark ideological differences between Barack Obama and John McCain, but the unmistakable contrast in the candidates’ physical demeanor left local viewers with their most lasting impression.

“Obama seemed very poised, very presidential, calm and collected,” said David Berger, one of 500 people watching from the sold-out Speakeasy Theater in El Cerrito, Calif.

“McCain just seemed a little unstable, a little angry. What I saw today was a little bit more desperation from him that in the last two debates,” Berger said.

Pressed hard by moderator Bob Schieffer, the two contenders battled over a broader range of domestic issues – including abortion, education and energy policy – than they had during either of the past debates.

The split-screen broadcast used by C-SPAN and other networks amplified the perceived difference between the candidates’ temperaments.

“When I’m looking at McCain he’s got a lot of facial expressions going on, he’s not acting very professionally compared to Obama,” said Ray Ross of Oakland, Calif. “All of this fake smiling and moving his hands and stuff. I think it’s very unprofessional of him to do that.”

Nationally, public opinion seemed to confirm the reaction of the theater’s unabashedly liberal Bay Area crowd.

Undecided voters polled by CBS judged Obama the winner by a considerable 53 to 22 percent margin. An online Fox News poll also went to Obama, 67 to 33 percent.

And 50 undecided voters in Denver, CO polled after the debate felt McCain gave “a decidedly un-presidential performance, appearing rude, negative, and easily flustered,” according to a memo from Democracy Corps, the national opinion research firm conducting the poll.

The Democracy Corp sample group, which entered the night favoring McCain, shifted its support towards Obama by a margin of 42 to 20 percent after the debate’s conclusion.

Such a result would not have seemed likely after the first few debate questions when, by most accounts, McCain appeared very much in control.

In one of the evening’s most memorable lines, McCain defended himself more forcefully against Obama’s efforts to tie him to the failed policies of the Bush administration

“Senator Obama, I am not President Bush,” said McCain. “If you wanted to run against President Bush, you should have run four years ago.”

But Obama deflected McCain’s attack with an equally pointed counter punch, as he did consistently throughout the 90-minute debate.

“The fact of the matter is that if I occasionally mistake your policies for George Bush’s policies, it’s because on the core economic issues that matter to the American people — on tax policy, on energy policy, on spending priorities — you have been a vigorous supporter of President Bush.”

David Berger, the Obama supporter from Hercules, Calif., agreed.

“If anything, this last debate seems to have pushed [McCain] closer toward the values of the Bush presidency, but more importantly he came across as more erratic and unstable,” he said.

Even when McCain directly accused Obama of ties to former Weather Underground leader Williams Ayers, an exchange both campaigns had foreseen, the momentum did not seem to shift in his favor.

In fact, many local viewers felt Obama’s straightforward response to the accusation actually increased the Democrat’s credibility.

“I always like the way that he explains things without being mean spirited, but never backs away from having to explain anything,” said Gail Smith, of Richmond, Calif.

Overall, Oakland, Calif., resident Mike Konzac felt the final debate was productive, both for the candidates and the American people.

“I think there was a fairly good discussion of what [the candidates] stood for and I think, at least hopefully, people are now more informed and have found their answers to what they needed.”

With only three weeks left until the election, David Berger, the Obama supporter, wondered what else it would take for voters to make up their minds.

“I just don’t know what they’re undecided about at this point.”

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