It happened in the middle of last night's second presidential debate. Barack Obama and John McCain were squabbling over who voted for what, when, on energy - an issue McCain returned to time and again, just as his running mate Sarah Palin did in her debate last week, apparently because the Republican campaign has decided it's their winningest issue now.
McCain, in a sarcastic, smart-alecky way, challenged the audience to guess who voted for what he called a "Bush-Cheney" energy bill, and who voted against it. Who voted for it? "That one," he said, gesturing toward Obama. And who voted no? "Me," McCain said proudly.
I sat bolt upright in my KCBS newsroom chair, where I was simultaneously watching the debate on TV, recording it in our digital audio system, logging the best sound bites and inhaling some excellent Szechuan food. I nearly spilled my black bean chicken.
"Did he just refer to Obama as 'that one'?"
Indeed he did.
It struck me as dismissive and disrespectful, but it is striking some African Americans as veiled racism. I'll leave it to others to decide that, but it was a moment that really stood out in the debate. It's become clear that McCain barely tolerates Obama, maybe not even as much as Palin tolerates gay people. He doesn't like to shake his hand, he barely looks at him during these debates, and the only time McCain even acknowledges Obama's presence is when he's scoffing at his experience and ideas.
But can you imagine the uproar if Joe Biden had referred to Sarah Palin as "that one" last week? There would have been howls that Biden was sexist and patronizing. Maybe it was an innocent turn of phrase, but I have a feeling this may be what everyone's talking about in the morning.
On substance, I thought this debate was essentially a draw. McCain had some strong moments (that one wasn't one of them), showed some initiative with that new mortgage buyback proposal, and wasn't quite as cantankerous as in the first debate. But Obama fared better in the town hall format than many people expected him to, parried McCain's thrusts quite deftly, and I thought looked far more relaxed and presidential. McCain seemed stiff and awkward as he lurched about the debate stage, while Obama was smooth and debonair. He has a disarming smile and a calm demeanor, while McCain comes off as irritated and a tad desperate.
And Obama succeeded in turning McCain's best lines against him. McCain had obviously practiced that quip about how sorting through Obama's tax plans is like "trying to nail jello to a wall," but Obama disemboweled it with his own comeback, telling McCain "the straight talk express just lost a wheel." When McCain returned to his signature argument of the first debate, that Obama just isn't ready to be president, the Democrat hit back with a dramatic list of McCain's most unstable foreign policy moments.
Obama clearly expected McCain to come out on the attack, as did so many pundits (not this one), because he beat him to the punch in the early going, using his very first answer to link McCain to the Bush economic policies. But, though he criticized Obama all night long, McCain didn't drop the gloves the way some thought he might, never bringing up William Ayers or Reverend Wright or any of the other Obama bogeymen that Sarah Palin's been flogging on the campaign trail lately. That kind of attack wouldn't have played well with the town hall crowd, and McCain was wise to avoid it. The problem for him now is, he didn't win this debate. The CBS News poll of undecided voters who watched it had 40% declaring Obama the winner, and 26% picking McCain. The rest thought it was a tie. A CNN survey of debate-watchers, not just undecideds, gave Obama a 54-30 landslide.
There were some other extremely encouraging numbers for Obama, and gloomy ones for McCain, in that CBS poll. Before the debate, 59% of those uncommitted voters thought Obama understood their needs and problems, and 33% thought so of McCain. After the debate? Obama's empathy index soared to 80%, while McCain's inched up to 44%. That says a lot about which man related more to the average viewer. Only 42% of these undecideds thought Obama was ready to be president going in to the debate; coming out, the figure is 58%.
So John McCain failed in his two central tasks: convincing voters Obama can't do the job, and that he, not Obama, feels their pain on the economy. Obama, on the other hand, closed the sale to a few more voters who weren't sure about him before. That means, even if this debate was a rough draw, Obama really won it, because McCain didn't score the decisive blow he needs to change the trajectory of this campaign.
And I don't know about you, but I'm really looking forward to Bob Schieffer in next week's final debate. Jim Lehrer was pretty good in the first one, Gwen Ifill was simply terrible last week, and Tom Brokaw was mediocre tonight. But Schieffer will be fantastic. Time constraints? Rules? One-minute rebuttals? Forget all that nonsense. Who cares about the format? The moderators don't even seem to remember what it's supposed to be half the time. The voters want real engagement on critical issues, not 90-second stump speeches with no follow-up. Just when a topic gets interesting, the moderator veers them off on a new course. That serves no one's interest. Let them have at it, for extended battle, on a few issues. Next week, they'll be sitting around a table with Schieffer, who brooks no nonsense on "Face the Nation" every Sunday morning. He knows exactly how to follow up, how to make someone answer a question, and how to slice through the garbage to the heart of the matter. McCain will be even more desperate, and he'll have no choice but to come at Obama with everything he's got. He might even rip off Obama's nicotine patch and call him a terrorist junkie. Now that one - I can't wait for.
New polls, post-debate interviews, video clips and even the entire debate, all available right now at www.sovernnation.com