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Who won the Mississippi debate? Obama—but for different reasons than you think

by Jane Stillwater
Obama—not McCain—appears to be the darling of the media (and also the American people) because he is so much more accessible.
John McCain came on strong at the debate in Mississippi the other night—while Obama just seemed hesitant. So. Why do I think that Obama won? For several reasons.

First, I was actually in Oxford, Mississippi, on September 26 and watched the debate from inside a gigantic tent filled with approximately 600 other journalists. While we were all pounding away at our laptops (except for me; I didn't have one, sigh), there was this one young lady who was going around and handing out McCain talking-points to us every ten minutes during the entire time that the debate was in progress. Apparently the McCain campaign people would focus in on something Obama said, plug it into their database, come up with a pre-fab rebuttal, photocopy it onto light blue paper and distribute it to us journalists—all within minutes after Obama had made his comment.

This was an extremely clever ploy on the part of McCain's team. However, I soon began to notice that after the third or fourth talking-point conglomeration had been passed out, more and more journalists began covering their work spaces with their hands, indicating that they just couldn't deal with any more light blue papers from McCain.

By the time that the tenth or twelfth blue paper was being handed out, journalists appeared to be thinking, "That's a heck lot of trees being cut down just for this...."

Second, as a reporter from Topeka wisely told me in the parking lot later, "McCain was playing to his base tonight, talking about Reagan, POWs, defending Israel, keeping hands off the DoD budget, etc.—while Obama was playing to the swing vote." Interesting.

After the debate was over, Fox News commentator William Kristol told us that "McCain was on the offensive throughout." And Obama came off as being very mild-mannered, even bringing shades of John Kerry to mind.

People in the swing states say that they don't like confrontational debates.

During the debate, Obama complimented McCain at least five times, saying "Senator McCain is right...." Why was he doing that? According to the reporter from Topeka, Obama was trying to appear non-confrontational—because the people in the swing states say that they don't like confrontational debates.

Third, Obama—not McCain—appears to be the darling of the media (and also the American people) because he is so much more accessible. Here's an example of the difference between Obama and McCain: 20 minutes before the debate, Obama arrived at the venue, got out of his vehicle and walked the last 50 feet to the side entrance, waving at us journalists as he walked.

"Give 'em Hell, Barack," I cried. And maybe an additional 300 journalists also clapped and waved too. And then we waited for McCain to arrive. And waited.

Ten minutes before the debate, a big bus drove up and stopped in front of the rear entrance, totally blocking off any view that the press might have had of the doors. Then, five minutes before the debate was to begin, McCain's vehicle suddenly drives up between the bus and the entrance, pulls into this special white Secret Service-supplied tent and gets out of his car. No one in the press corps caught even a glimpse of McCain as he entered the building, not even for a second. And no one in the press corps clapped for him or waved at him either.

This is a very good example of the difference between Obama and McCain. McCain, like Bush, is not gonna go out there and mix with the hoi poloi, even if they are carefully vetted (and carefully frisked) members of the free press.

Fourth, what I learned outside the immediate debate venue area was also important. What I had seen and heard as I walked around the campus of Ole Miss earlier that day gave me several more insights into Obama's various strengths.

The people I saw on campus who were wearing Obama buttons looked like normal people. The people wearing McCain buttons looked like Goldwater Girls—like Barbie and Ken. Hey, there are only so many of those types of voters left in America these days. All the rest of us are too busy running for cover trying to protect our bank accounts. And it was to us that Obama seemed to plead his case during the debate.

Jane Stillwater writes from California. Visit her blog for more of her observations.

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This story was published on October 1, 2008.