Another predictable debate which noone won can only be good news for Barack Obama who needs only not to lose to winGerard Baker, US editor in Nashville, Tennessee

If John McCain’s supporters were hoping that Tuesday night’s second presidential debate would turn back the Obama Tide that has engulfed their campaign in the last two weeks they will have been disappointed.

It was a flat, unmemorable affair, a matchsticks-on-the-eyelids struggle to stay awake, a predictable canter through the now familiar fields of the fading 2008 presidential election landscape: the financial crisis and the economy; health care; energy; taxes; Iraq; the war on terror; Afghanistan, Iran.

Some of the exchanges, it is true, were sharper than in their first debate two weeks ago. Senator McCain, behind in the polls, swung a few times and landed a blow or two on the glass jaw of his opponent. But this was not a debate in any meaningful sense of the term. It was once again an alternating recitation of standard campaign lines.

Senator Obama – you may be shocked to hear – promised tax cuts for working people; universal health care, an end to financial deregulation, the winding down of the war in Iraq, a renewed commitment to the war in Afghanistan and an America that is liked by the world. Senator McCain – in case you hadn’t heard – is a Republican who will continue the failed policies of George Bush.

For his part Senator McCain insisted he was – wait for it – a reformer who would reform Washington, end corruption on Wall Street, drill for oil, win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and robustly defend America’s interests. Senator Obama, he gravely reminded the audience, could not be trusted because he didn’t have the experience or the judgment.

One expects candidates to get their points across in these debates. But real debates involve thrust and parry; contention and objection; point and counterpoint. This had none of those necessities. And neither candidate was properly challenged by the moderator, Tom Brokaw, the superannuated NBC News Voice of God, to explain the trickier elements of their observations or square the contradictions in their claims. The town hall format, in which a few regular Americans in the auditorium (and a handful from outside via the internet) asked mostly bog-standard questions failed to break the gnawing predictability of it all.

Before the debate there had been much discussion about whether Senator McCain would use the occasion to repeat some of his campaign’s recent attacks on Senator Obama, specifically whether he might raise the spectre of some of the Illinois Democrat’s questionable associations in his past. Senator McCain has a reputation as a bare-knuckled fighter when he’s down, and given the parlous state of his campaign with less than a month to the election, it was thought he might take the lunge.

But in the event the Republican left the gloves on. There were no references to William Ayers, the 1960s lefty terrorist with whom Senator Obama evidently has a not-fully-explained past entanglement. Nor was there any time – on this occasion – for the volcanic Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama’s professionally aggrieved preacher and mentor.

Instead, Senator McCain tried to duff up his opponent by what might be called Marquess of Queensberry Rules. In the financial section of the debate he got in a few good jabs over the Democrat’s support over the past few years for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two mortgage behemoths whose bloated expansion, with the willing support of Democrats, is at least as much to blame for the current crisis as any supposed capitalist rush to deregulation. And he cheekily compared him to Herbert Hoover, the Republican widely credited (if that’s the word) for the policy errors that led to the first Great Depression.

Probably the only moment of real surprise in the whole 90 minutes came when Senator McCain, explaining how he and his opponent had voted differently on an energy bill, referred to Senator Obama as “that one”.

It produced a slight wince of disapproving dismay in the media watching hall, the sort of response you might evince when someone gently belches at a dinner party.

But, like that little betise, it was gone in an instant. The debate quickly resumed its lumbering path towards bedtime. Even a final bright question from the internet that asked the candidates to say what they didn’t know and how they might learn it quickly became an excuse for another predictable recital of stump speech talking points.

In short, as with the first presidential debate two weeks ago, and the vice-presidential contest last week, no-one won this bout.

All of which is good news for Senator Obama. Thanks to the financial crisis that has erupted in the last three weeks , the Democrat has opened up a commanding lead in the polls that will surely now – less than four weeks before the election – only be undone by some terrible error on his part, or some unimaginable breakthrough by Senator McCain.

The Illinois senator is now in the position of a golfer who is dormie three in a matchplay tournament. If he doesn’t lose, he wins. And he can even afford to lose a couple of holes and still be in command.

Source: Timesonline UK

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