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Grading the First Presidential Debate

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Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Barack Obama and John McCain during their debate at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Mississippi.


John McCain

Substance: His arguments were hard to follow at the beginning, but he found his voice as the debate progressed, although he never seemed fully in control of his message. He had plenty to say about the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia, but often bogged down his own answers when trying to unfurl quips and soundbites. Stuck with bumper sticker slogans on the economy, and while he got a bit more detailed on foreign policy, he stayed at his usual level of abstraction. If he truly knows more about the world than Obama, he didn't show it in this debate.

Grade: B-

Style: Cluttered, jumpy, and often muddled. Frequent coughing early on helped neither his arguments nor his image. Jokes about being deaf and anecdotes about Normandy and George Shultz seemed ill-advised — even his pen was old. His presentation was further hindered by his wandering discussion of the differing heights of North and South Koreans and his angry assertion about how well he knows Henry Kissinger. Fell into the classic politician's trap of inserting familiar stump speech applause lines into debate responses — which only works if done with enthusiasm and clarity (and if received by applause — a big No-No in Lehrer's auditorium, which the audience obeyed seriously and silently). Keenly aware of the grand, grave occasion, McCain wavered between respectful and domineering, and ended up awkward and edgy.

Grade: C-

Offense: Emphasized his bread and butter issues of taxes and spending, and hit Obama on his failure to visit Iraq and his expressed willingness to meet with dictators. But while mocking his opponent on a few occasions, which reflected his acute disrespect for Obama, he did so in an insufficiently sharp and detailed manner — and unevenly worked elements of his rival's record into his attacks. Still he was utterly confident about his own experience, knowledge, and policies, even when tripped by his own tongue and distracted by the strains of debate practice. The main problem: Obama's obvious preparation and sharp answers contradicted McCain's frequent claims that the Democrat was uninformed and "didn't understand" key issues.

Grade: C+

Defense: He managed to ignore most of Obama's jibes, but was eventually baited into giving an extended answer about his policy differences with President Bush, after his opponent repeatedly mentioned McCain's regular support of Bush's budgets. Was visibly riled when clashing with Obama over a variety of issues, including Iraq, sanctions, and spending. He also chose to boast about Sarah Palin (although not by name) as his maverick partner, who, after her shaky week, may no longer be his ace in the hole.

Grade: B-

Overall: McCain was McCain — evocative, intense, and at times emotional, but also vague, elliptical, and atonal. Failed to deliver his "country first versus Obama first" message cleanly, even when offered several opportunities. Surprisingly, did not talk much about "change," virtually ceding the dominant issue of the race.

Overall grade: B-

(Read Mark Halperin's take on Barack Obama's performance)
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