The top adviser to Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., today contemplated whether Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would introduce a new strategy at tonight’s debate — "McCain 7.0," he sneered — and said the debates had clearly helped Obama rise in the polls.
"We’ve gained after each of these debates, including the VP debate, as I think people have gotten more familiar not just with the candidates but with the choice," said Obama’s senior strategist David Axelrod.
"We’re not in the business of reinventing ourselves from debate to debate," Axelrod told reporters as the Obama campaign plane flew from Toledo to New York City Wednesday afternoon. Axelrod said Obama’s "consistency" throughout the debates, and the campaign in general, had helped him as he got to speak to 50-70 million of them without the filter of the media or his opponents’ attack ads.
And what has Obama learned from these debates?
"He’s learned that (McCain) doesn’t like to look at him very often," Axelrod said, noting the Republican’s predilection for avoiding eye contact with his opponent. "I don’t think it’s of that much consequence" to Obama but "obviously, it was noted."
Axelrod added, "whatever the idiosyncrasies of Sen. McCain’s debating style," Obama would focus on talking about issues. He said Obama was prepared for whatever questions or attacks might come his way this evening at Hofstra University at the third and final presidential debate, to be moderated by CBS News’ Bob Schieffer. Obama intends to focus "on the future of the country" and focus on issues, hoping tonight’s forum, with its focus on domestic issues, would allow the Democrat to talk more about energy, education and health care.
Tonight will be "the last chance for folks to see these candidates side by side and take the measure of them," said Axelrod, adding that this being the last debate would "accentuate the decision-making process for people still making their choices."
Axelrod said he personally thought Obama had impressed the American people.
McCain has suggested that since Obama remarked to ABC News’ Charlie Gibson that McCain didn’t make "to his face," in the last debate, any of the direct attacks on his character that his campaign had been making on the stump, he’d "assured" that McCain would at the very least raise Obama’s relationship with former 60s radical William Ayers.
Axelrod disputed a reporter’s characterization that Obama was "goad"ing McCain into raising the issue, saying Obama had merely been making "an observation." He said attacks like that "are not what the American people want to hear. … There is such a seriousness of purpose among voters this year."
With all the talk of campaign tactics, and whether McCain can make a game-changing move tonight as Obama ascends in many polls, Axelrod said, "I think Sen. McCain’s problem is fundamental, which is he’s got a bad argument. He’s essentially on the wrong side of history. He’s arguing for a set of policies and an approach that have been discredited in a really dramatic way over the last eight years, and I’m not sure any stylistic change or approach in a debate can change that."
Obama has improved quite a bit as a debater since that first Democratic primary debate in South Carolina in April 2007, Axelrod said.
"He’s honed his debating style over the course of these 25 debates," Axelrod said. "He’s said before that the format of it wasn’t always … something that came naturally to him. I think he’s mastered it very, very well."
ABC News pointed out that Obama was criticized for his response to a question in that first debate about what he would do immediately in response to another terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
Obama said then, "the first thing we’d have to do is make sure that we’ve got an effective emergency response, something that this administration failed to do when we had a hurricane in New Orleans."
That gave Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., the openings to say their first response would be to swiftly retaliate, and their campaigns said Obama’s instincts were all wrong.
Axelrod seemed to acknowledge that Obama now gives more muscular responses to questions about terrorism, though "his views haven’t changed."
– Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller