The old John McCain was back Friday – and that's good news for the Republican presidential nominee.
McCain brought his plain-spoken, wise-guy ways that work well in town hall meetings to the presidential debate, while Barack Obama countered with his own trademark style – crisp point-by-point analyses of issues, answers in well-crafted paragraphs, little emotion.
The verdict: McCain did better than expected, because he was often the 2000 vintage McCain who dazzled voters with his give-'em-hell manner. Obama was Obama, and anyone who likes him was reminded why.
Expectations had been low for McCain, who in many eyes – including those of some Republicans – threw a wrench into Washington negotiations this week by inserting himself into efforts to craft a financial rescue plan.
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He said he'd skip the debate to work on the deal, then participated very little in negotiations and reversed his decision Friday morning, flying to Mississippi.
However, none of that confusion was evident Friday, as viewers sometimes saw stark differences between the candidates.
Foremost was the distinct difference in style.
McCain painted himself as the candidate of experience, who made it a point to note that he first came to Congress in 1983 “when the person I admired the most and still admire the most, Ronald Reagan,” was president.
The Arizona senator also was quick with quips and human touches. He started the debate by offering his “thoughts and prayers” to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the liberal Democratic lion, who was hospitalized earlier Friday evening but was home in time to see the debate.
He used a story about Gen. Dwight Eisenhower the night before the Normandy invasion to make a point about responsibility. He called the failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac a “train wreck.”
And he repeatedly suggested that Obama, a first-term senator, was naive and didn't understand the subtleties of whatever foreign challenge they were discussing.
Obama didn't try to match the zingers and the heart tugs. He was more lawyerly, armed with data and fleshed-out positions. He often listed his proposals by enumerating his points. For every assertion, he offered evidence.
North Korea, for instance, “quadrupled their nuclear capacity. They tested a nuke. They tested missiles. They pulled out of the non-proliferation agreement. And they sent nuclear secrets potentially to countries like Syria.”
Viewers who see Obama as the night's winner are likely to point to his technique of highlighting key policy differences with McCain, notably on foreign affairs.
The Iraq war remains highly unpopular, and though McCain was resolute in insisting that “we came up with a great general and a strategy that has succeeded,” that gave Obama an opening.
“The first question is whether we should have gone into the war in the first place,” he said.
He recalled that six years ago, “I stood up and opposed this war, at a time when it was politically risky to do so…” Not so risky in Obama's liberal home base on Chicago's South Side, however.
Obama also tried to paint McCain as too cozy with corporate executives, oil barons and President Bush.
The current financial turmoil, Obama said, “is a final verdict of eight years of failed economic policies – promised by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain.”
But in some ways, the more Obama hammered away at McCain's ties to Bush, the more he gave McCain an opening to remind the audience of the political style that got him this far.
McCain eight years ago was Bush's Republican primary rival, surging to victory in the New Hampshire primary by holding dozens of town hall meetings and railing against corporate special interests.
He opposed Bush's signature 2001 and 2003 tax cuts and pushed campaign-finance legislation that Bush hated.
“It's well known that I have not been elected Miss Congeniality in the United States Senate,” McCain said, “nor with the administration.”
And he added, “I have a long record, and the American people know me very well.”