Everyone is asking that, especially the question “Who won?” “What do
you think?” There is such uncertainty. Which confirms what I thought.

Both candidates did equally well. Nobody won. Or…..both won, by not
losing. Everybody thinks their candidate won, which means it was a draw.

WaPo’s Dana Milbank called it ‘Lukewarm’.

At one wooden lectern stood the Republican nominee,
tempestuous and tightly wound. A few steps across the red carpet stood
his Democratic opponent, cerebral and condescending. “Is John McCain
too hot?” Chris Matthews of “Hardball” broadcast from the Ole Miss
campus before Friday night’s first general-election debate. “Is Barack
Obama too cold?”

But when they opened their mouths, what came out was neither hot nor cold, but a tepid gruel.

McCain was controlled. Obama was succinct. And both were so mild
that moderator Jim Lehrer didn’t know what to do. “Talk to each other,”
he urged. “Say it directly to him,” he pleaded. “Do you have something
directly to say, Senator Obama, to Senator McCain about what he just
said? . . . Respond directly to him about that, to Senator Obama about
that. He’s made it twice now.”

No use. Lehrer asked about the financial-bailout plan gripping the nation. “Do you favor this plan?” the moderator pressed.

“We haven’t seen the language yet,” Obama demurred.

“Are you going to vote for the plan, Senator McCain?”

“I — I hope so,” McCain hedged.

Yep, that’s what it was. Safe.

At times it swung one way, then the other. WaPo’s David Broder credited McCain with not faltering, which he couldn’t afford to do. In fact, he found him convincing.

It was a small thing, but I counted six times that Obama
said that McCain was “absolutely right” about a point he had made. No
McCain sentences began with a similar acknowledgment of his opponent’s
wisdom, even though the two agreed on Iran, Russia and the U.S.
financial crisis far more than they disagreed.

That suggests an imbalance in the deference quotient between the
younger man and the veteran senator — an impression reinforced by
Obama’s frequent glances in McCain’s direction and McCain’s studied
indifference to his rival.

Whether viewers caught the verbal and body-language signs that Obama
seemed to accept McCain as the alpha male on the stage in Mississippi,
I do not know.

But it reinforced my impression that McCain was the more aggressive
debater. He flung the adjectives that stick in a listener’s mind,
calling Obama “naive” and therefore “dangerous.”

Given that most of the debate was on foreign policy and national
security, supposedly McCain’s strong subjects, the Obama camp is
justified in thinking that their guy did not embarrass himself.

Here’s what I think. Yes, they both did well. They were convincing
overall, in command of their talking point, never slipped enough to be
pounced upn, and they gave us two different looks at a future potential
president.

I did catch that body language thing early on, and it did bother me.
Communication is a big thing with me, and the non-verbal is sometimes
as important as the verbal. McCain would not look at Obama. Obama would
not stop looking at McCain. There are messages to be drawn from that,
right or wrong. But it bugged me.

If I were an adviser, I would say “Look your opponent in the face,
listen, consider what he’s saying, then counter seriously and
respectfully with what you consider to be his wrong premise for
arriving at his conclusions.” But nobody hired me to be an adviser, so
we’ll move on….

The biggest surprise was the shared diffidence on the
topic du jour — the Wall Street bailout plan. Neither candidate would
give moderator Jim Lehrer a straight answer as to whether he supported
the administration request for a $700 billion rescue effort.

They were even more evasive when Lehrer pressed them to say how they
would adjust their ambitious plans to accommodate the budgetary effects
of that massive government expenditure.

It was Never-Never Land, as Obama and McCain struggled to avoid the full implications of this economic policy calamity.

That was downright weird. I don’t recell Lehrer so frustrated as
trying in this debate to continually revisit this question in hopes of
getting an answer……how will they adjust their planned economic spending
due to the currently necessary massive government bailout expenditures?
And no matter how many times Lehrer kept returning to it, trying to pin
them down on some answer they could commit to…..no dice.

Perhaps the next two debates will offer opportunities to
pin these artful dodgers down on how they would operate under the
burdens the Bush administration will leave behind. Otherwise, the
voters may go to the polls with only the vaguest idea of the truly
tough choices the next president will face.

I’m hearing more people say they’re worried that neither candidate
has the answer for these grave times. The vice-presidential debate will
provide another whole round of these anaylses.

My suggestions, if anyone is listening….Call off the handlers for
now. Let McCain be McCain. Obama has been Obama and it has worked well
until the Democratic convention, when he went out on that elaborate
White House set and delivered not soaring and uplifting (if not empty)
rhetoric, but an all-out attack on McCain. Let Palin be
Palin….please!…..and see who she really is without number crunching and
policy wonking and packaging for the mainstream media. She got where
she got without all that deferential treatment. Let her come out and
answer impromptu questions as she naturally handles them. And let
America see them all for who they are.

We will see Joe Biden for who he is in spite of anybody’s attempt to handle him?! Biden is his own man, gaffes and all.

I may be out on a limb here, but I think they will reveal their
worldviews enough for American’s to know who most closely represents
their beliefs. If the handlers back off and let these future leaders be
who they most naturally are, we’ll gravitate to whoever best represents
our views.

No more handling. That comes across first as aritificial and stiff.
McCain is most McCain when he shocks the nation and rolls out Sarah
Palin as his running mate. Palin is most Palin when she step outside
the daily rounds of handler sessions indoctriating her with numbers and
statistics and policies and records, and just gets to be Sarah Palin.

Free them from those contstraints. Then we’ll have the chance to know them as we should.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....