The presidential campaigns roared out of Mississippi on Saturday morning in a pitched fight to make the case that the other candidate had lost the first presidential debate.
At the crack of dawn, Barack Obama's campaign released an advertisement criticizing John McCain for failing to say “middle class” in the 90-minute debate, held Friday at the University of Mississippi. By then, McCain had already released an Internet video citing several instances in which Obama had said he agreed with his rival's positions.
The activity was part of a battle to shape public perceptions in the closing weeks of a razor-tight race. Both campaigns viewed the debates as a potential turning point, an opportunity for one side to finally break through in a race in which neither man has been able to sustain a statistically significant lead in polls.
Even as they sought to mold perceptions from the previous night, the campaigns were preparing for the next two debates, including Thursday's between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call Saturday morning, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, called Palin “a gifted debater.” Noting McCain's preference for town hall formats, and using the transparent, expectations-setting hyperbole common from both campaigns, Plouffe said he would be “thrilled” if “we can just escape relatively unscathed.”
The positioning was in keeping with what is now a quadrennial rite in which the campaigns go full bore to convince the news media, and ultimately the public, that their candidate won. This often involves highlighting some supposedly fatal mistake by their opponent – the sighs of Al Gore at a 2000 debate; the first President George Bush's peek at his wristwatch while debating Bill Clinton in 1992.
In this case, McCain's campaign seized on a somewhat stammering reference Obama made to a bracelet he received from the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq after McCain spoke about one bequeathed to him. Obama's campaign sought to portray McCain as angry.
But the general sense was that the debate had not changed the landscape of the overall campaign. An anchorman on the Fox News Channel went so far as to tell a guest, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, “They could have used you on the debate last night.” Huckabee had won high marks for his quips in the Republican primary debates.
Both campaigns emerged Saturday with evidence of their successes, including competing declarations of victory from various commentators and editorial boards. Obama appeared to have an edge in the various snap polls taken the night of the debate.
Obama's aides asserted that he had passed the threshold test of convincing a huge national audience that he could be commander in chief, and that he had exceeded expectations on delivering his economic message to struggling Americans. McCain's campaign argued that Obama had failed to allay voters' concerns about his qualifications, expressing pride in the frequency with which he had told Obama he did not “understand” various international matters.
The war over shaping the post-debate narrative got off to an exceptionally early start, beginning, in fact, even before the event occurred.
McCain's campaign actually declared victory as early as 10 a.m. Friday, hours before the debate began here and even before McCain had agreed to take part in it. The campaign mistakenly released an Internet advertisement to The Wall Street Journal showing McCain looking into the distance. “McCain Wins Debate!” read the type.
A reader of The Washington Post spotted it and alerted the Post blog The Fix, which promptly posted it before the McCain campaign removed it.
It was a telling false start to the most important battle to shape perceptions of the election year so far, one pitting two sophisticated war rooms against each another in an all-out effort to harness the increasingly fractured new media. “This is the Super Bowl,” said Tucker Bounds, McCain's national spokesman.
Each side had substantive goals for the debate.
For Obama, a 46-year-old Democrat, it was to show he had the stature to serve as commander in chief and, if possible, present himself as the proper steward for the turbulent economy. For McCain, a 72-year-old Republican, it was to move past a topsy-turvy week for both the economy and his campaign and establish his pre-eminence on national security while showing vitality and raising doubts about Obama.
But debates are often won or lost on superficialities. And each campaign was unapologetic in seeking to exploit to maximum effect any gaffe or potentially grating personality ticks of the opponent.
In the era of live blogging and real-time fact-checking, YouTube and Twitter, the campaigns began their fight for perceptions minute by minute on Friday night, devising sophisticated plans to tackle the sprawling new media environment unlike any their predecessors employed before them.
Obama's campaign assigned individual staff members to work the most influential bloggers, print reporters and television producers throughout the night. David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, was assigned to check in with the three major anchors, Katie Couric, Charles Gibson and Brian Williams.
The McCain campaign worked more of a zone offense, with individual staff members working different groups: “live bloggers,” fact-checkers, and the more traditional newspaper reporters and television producers.
Back in their main headquarters, each campaign had video producers preparing to seize on a moment to be blasted out for easy replay.
“We will be looking to accentuate the key, turning-point moments to emphasize our points,” Bounds said in an interview outside his temporary war room here before the debate started.
Bounds believed he had found it an hour into the debate. After McCain told an anecdote about a woman who gave him the bracelet of her son who was killed fighting in Iraq, Obama responded, “I have a bracelet, too,” then paused, briefly, before reciting the soldier's name.
“‘Bracelet,' is the moment,” Bounds wrote in an e-mail. A YouTube clip followed minutes later.