‘That one’ won

‘THAT ONE’ WON…. Just to add my two cents to Hilzoy’s sharp analysis from last night, I thought I’d add how much last night’s debate broke with expectations.

After the first debate, John McCain took quite a bit of heat for neglecting to use the words “middle class,” so I expected him to correct the oversight. He didn’t. After the last several days of guilt-by-association attacks, I expected McCain to talk about Bill Ayers and ask who the “real” Barack Obama is. He didn’t do that, either. After many noticed that McCain treated Obama with contempt in their first meeting, I expected McCain to be far more gracious and respectful last night. Instead, he called his Democratic rival “that one.”

And after McCain’s legendary love for town-hall debates, I expected McCain to thrive rather easily in his habitat of choice. Instead, he seemed clumsy and unsure of himself.

I’ve long seen Obama as a capable but underwhelming debater. Even during the primaries, Clinton and Edwards seemed more comfortable and relaxed in a debate, while Obama struck me as more professorial and detail oriented. Last night, however, the professor schtick worked beautifully — the hall was his classroom and Obama was in complete control. It was arguably his best debate performance to date.

In the broader political context, of course, McCain needed a big night in the worst way. The polls have been very discouraging for the Republican, and there’s a growing sense the campaign may be slowly slipping away. This was a genuine opportunity — in McCain’s favorite setting — to turn things around. If anything, McCain lost ground with meandering answers and a prickly demeanor. Pressed to fundamentally alter the dynamic of this race, McCain, once again, came up short.

The more Obama seized control, the more one observation seemed clear: McCain is used to town-hall meetings in which no one challenges him. They’re fun and easy, just so long he has a stage all to himself. Worse, given the warnings about personal attacks, McCain seemed to shrink from the moment, seemingly too embarrassed by his own nonsense to make the bogus charges to Obama directly.

As John Judis put it, “What the debate proved, I think, is that Obama is becoming more comfortable with the idea of himself as president of the United States, while McCain is becoming ever more crotchety at the prospect of defeat.”

The first debate focused primarily on foreign policy and national security, and was supposed to be the event in which McCain got back on track. The second debate was a town-hall-style gathering, and it was supposed to be the event in which McCain got back on track.

With time running out, it’s not at all clear McCain even knows where the track is anymore.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.