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No Clear Winner in US Presidential Debate 

  • Kent Klein

Both U.S. presidential candidates were claiming victory following the first of three scheduled debates. Commentators, analysts and bloggers appeared split on who may have gained an advantage from Friday's debate. Many believe that both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama performed well, but neither walked away the clear winner. VOA's Kent Klein reports from Washington.

The headlines in Saturday's newspapers, websites and blogs show mixed reactions to the debate: "Neither candidate won, tie goes to Obama," "McCain very glad he decided to show up," and "The big winner was America."

Experts seem to agree that neither Barack Obama nor John McCain made any serious mistakes. NBC political analyst Chuck Todd said on Saturday's Today show he thinks it was a good night for both candidates.

"They were both very good at doing what they do well, Obama being a little more direct than he usually is, but still expansive, and the format helped him there, McCain being very direct, showing a lot of energy," he said.

Bruce Miroff, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany, says John McCain was particularly comfortable in the foreign policy portion of the debate.

"McCain had had a rocky two weeks on the economy. He was back on his ground of foreign policy, and he probably reassured his supporters that he was still in command of his campaign," he said.

On the other hand, Miroff says Barack Obama held his own with McCain on foreign policy.

"Obama's task was to show that he could go toe-to-toe with McCain on foreign policy, his supposed weakness and McCain's supposed strength. He had to look presidential, he had to convince people that he was ready to be commander-in-chief, and to be a president knowledgeable and with good judgment on foreign policy, and I think he accomplished that task," he said.

The 90-minute debate at the University of Mississippi was originally intended to focus entirely on foreign affairs. But the recent convulsions in the financial markets led debate moderator Jim Lehrer to spend the first 40 minutes on economic issues. Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, says that was a distinct advantage for Obama.

"In essence, John McCain got cheated. That was supposed to be the foreign policy debate. That is John McCain's strong suit," he said. "The McCain campaign was delighted that the series of debates began with the foreign policy issues. And, of course, because of the financial superstructure meltdown, the moderator naturally asked questions about the economy."

Some analysts have commented on the contrasting demeanor of the two candidates. While Obama argued with McCain on numerous issues, he said eight times he agreed with his opponent on various points. Some commentators have called that a sign of weakness. Bruce Miroff, however, says it hurt McCain.

"McCain very visibly smirked and showed a kind of disrespect for Obama, which was also evident in constantly saying that Obama did not understand this or that. And to some people that may convey strength, but I suspect to more people it was a negative for McCain," he said.

Larry Sabato says the candidates' behavior during a debate has very little to do with who is more qualified to be President.

"Whether McCain looked at Obama is irrelevant," he said. "Whether Obama was interrupting McCain because he was upset is irrelevant. What matters really is the substance of what they said. Does style play into it? Of course it plays into it. But that is no way to pick a president."

The second of this year's three presidential debates will take place October 7 in Nashville, Tennessee. The candidates will respond to questions on both foreign and domestic policy from the audience, and to questions submitted on the Internet.

Larry Sabato says the format of the second debate appears to favor John McCain.

"Town hall debates are McCain's strong point, and yet you never know what is going to be asked," he said.

There will also be one vice presidential debate, between Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Sarah Palin October 2 in Saint Louis, Missouri.

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