John McCain finally got his town hall debate with Barack Obama -- but not the result he was hoping for. After the candidates' encounter at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., Democrats were enthusiastic over Obama's performance while Republicans were downbeat over McCain's. And GOP Insiders sounded skeptical that their nominee can improve enough during next week's final debate to change the direction of the race, which currently favors the Democrat.
According to a survey of 152 Political Insiders (77 Democrats, 75 Republicans) for NationalJournal.com, Obama helped himself the most in the second presidential debate. An overwhelming majority of Democratic Insiders -- 95 percent -- said Obama had bested McCain. Only 5 percent said McCain came out on top.
By a 2-to-1 majority, Republican Insiders agreed with that assessment: Sixty-seven percent said Obama gained more from the nationally televised town hall, while 25 percent said McCain got the better of the debate. The remaining 8 percent of GOP Insiders volunteered that the event was a draw.
Coming into Tuesday night with a lead in the polls and a growing sense that he is going to be able to capture so-called "red" states that had voted for George W. Bush in 2004, Obama had the easier task -- avoid making a mistake that McCain could capitalize on. Insiders in both parties said Obama achieved that goal.
"Obama committed no major gaffes, which means he'll keep his 4-to-5 point lead" in the polls, said one GOP Insider. "McCain needed to land a haymaker, and he didn't." Similarly, one Democratic Insider said of Obama's performance: "He didn't dominate McCain, but McCain needed a big win and he didn't get it."
While some Republican Insiders felt that McCain turned in a solid showing in a setting where he is practiced, others said that Obama had reached a critical threshold simply by convincing Americans that he won't be overwhelmed in the Oval Office.
"Every time Obama is on the same stage with McCain, he looks a little more presidential, a little more prepared for the job," said one Republican Insider. Echoed another, "He continued down the path of making voters more comfortable -- and comforted -- by the idea of a President Obama."
Democrats didn't dispute that assessment. "In my view, looking like he could be sitting in the chair in the Oval Office is the key for Obama," said one Democratic Insider. "He did it last night." And Democrats were quick to claim that just the optical contrast of the two candidates side-by-side clearly benefited Obama. "Obama seemed at ease and presidential, in control," said one Democratic Insider. "McCain was wandering around the stage like Mr. Magoo. Also, the phrase 'that one,' will haunt McCain the rest of the campaign," predicted the Insider, referring to the moment in the debate when McCain referred to Obama in those words.
After the debate, Obama senior strategist David Axelrod told reporters it's for the American people to decide how to interpret that remark, though he also called McCain "irascible." In his own post-debate comments to reporters, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a close adviser to McCain, dismissed the Democratic criticism on the "that one" comment as "pretty thin-skinned."
With one debate remaining on Oct. 15 at Hofstra University in New York, Republican Insiders said it's imperative that McCain make the argument that Obama is unprepared for the White House and try to somehow alter the dynamics of the race, but they also acknowledged neither mission will be easy.
"McCain needs to do a better job on focusing attention on the fact that he has actually accomplished things and his opponent has never faced the daunting responsibilities a new president will face," said one Republican Insider. "Keep raising the issue of preparedness to serve," repeated another. "McCain needs to make the election about a simple choice and scare the voters about a pending Obama presidency," said a third.
But another GOP Insider admitted that for McCain "to change the trajectory of the race [will be] difficult to do, and the closer it gets the more shrill he will look."
Other GOP Insiders hope McCain can make some headway on economic issues. "McCain needs to find a way to connect with voters on the economy," said one. "But this will be tough because he has spent the whole campaign unable to connect on this issue."
Republicans also believe that McCain has to somehow come across as more vigorous, but some of their comments on this score acknowledge that might be futile. "Dye your hair," joked one Republican Insider. "The age contrast was apparent last night."
Said another: "McCain needs to put at least two coherent sentences together about domestic policy and maybe visit the Fountain of Youth. I'm not very confident he'll do either."
At times, Republicans almost seemed desperate in assessing what McCain should do next week. "McCain needs to roll a grenade in the room," said one GOP Insider. "More effective prayers," joked another.
By comparison, the front-running Obama's tasks seem easier. Some Democrats would like to see him work on the humanity factor. "Obama needs to be warmer and not as professorial," said one Democratic Insider. "While Obama is much more articulate, he still does not 'connect' emotionally with people." Another said Obama needed to show "some passion, conveying that he actually cares about people and not just winning this election." A third simply advised him to "continue to lighten up [and] use the smile." And many Democrats said stay the course. "I think Obama should keep doing what he is doing," said one Democratic Insider. "It's working."
Kirk Victor contributed to this report.