WASHINGTON -- September began as John McCain's month and ended as Barack Obama's. McCain's high-risk wagers aimed at shaking up the campaign turned into very bad investments. And Friday's debate eliminated McCain's best chance to deliver a knockout blow to an opponent whose most important asset may be his capacity for self-correction.
McCain is supposed to own the foreign policy issue--and he should have owned Friday's debate. During their respective primary battles, McCain was a better debater than Obama, who could be hesitant, wordy and thrown off his stride.
But the Obama who showed up at Ole Miss was sharper and more concise than the man who frequently lost debates against his Democratic foes. He was also resolutely calm in standing his ground against McCain, whose condescension became a major talking point following the debate. If Al Gore suffered from his sighs during the 2000 debates, McCain will be remembered for his supercilious repetition of seven variations on "Senator Obama doesn't understand."
This gave special power to Obama's peroration about McCain's "wrong" judgments on going to war in Iraq. McCain's dismissal of Obama brought back memories of how advocates for the war arrogantly dismissed those who insisted (rightly, as it turned out) that the conflict would be far more difficult and costly than its architects suggested.
McCain's derisive approach may help explain why the instant polls gave Obama an edge in a debate that many pundits rated a tie--and why women seemed especially inclined toward Obama. CNN's survey found that 59 percent of women rated Obama as having done better, with just 31 percent saying that of McCain.
An Obama adviser who was watching a "dial group"--in which viewers turn a device to express their feelings about a debate's every moment--said that whenever McCain lectured or attacked Obama, the Republican's ratings would drop, and the fall was especially steep among women.
But if the debate was indeed a tie--and McCain certainly looked informed and engaged once the discussion moved from economics to foreign affairs--this would count as a net gain for Obama. A foreign policy discussion afforded McCain his best opportunity to aggravate doubts about his foe. That opportunity is now gone.
As for the first 40 minutes devoted to the economic crisis, Obama was more forceful in addressing public anxieties. He used the occasion to tout his middle-class tax cut that a large share of the electorate doesn't even know he's proposing. Obama's campaign quickly went on the air with an ad noting that McCain did not once mention the words "middle class" during the discussion.
Thus ends a month that began with such promise for McCain. His choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate at the end of August created a fortnight of excitement among Republican loyalists who were less than enthusiastic about McCain. Some said Palin would also enhance his appeal to women voters and help him recast his candidacy as a maverick's crusade.
But it was a reckless choice. Palin has proved herself to be spectacularly unprepared for a national campaign and embarrassingly inarticulate and unreflective. She is held in protective custody by a campaign that trusts her less and less. A few conservatives suggested she should be dropped from the ticket.
Then came McCain's abrupt foray into Washington's negotiations over a Wall Street bailout bill. His showy call for postponing Friday's debate was serenely rebuffed by Obama and McCain was forced to retreat. The candidate with 26 years of congressional experience lost a test of wills to an opponent with just four years on the national stage.
And when McCain intervened in the rescue package discussions, his position on the matter was muddy. This champion of bipartisanship briefly stood up for a House Republican minority that was battling against a bipartisan accord largely accepted by his Senate Republican colleagues, and then pulled back. The McCain who had once allied with such liberals as Ted Kennedy and Russ Feingold was suddenly flirting with an approach to the economic rescue recommended by Newt Gingrich.
The post-Labor Day period has thus brought the campaign to an unexpected point.
McCain, once the candidate of tested experience, must now battle the perception that he has become the riskier choice, a man too given to rash moves under pressure. Obama, whose very newness promised change but also raised doubts, has emerged as the cool and unruffled candidate who moves calmly but steadily forward. However one judges the first debate, it did nothing to block Obama's progress.
E.J. Dionne, Jr. is the author of the recently published Souled Out: Reclaiming Faith and Politics After the Religious Right. He is a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a professor at Georgetown University.