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September 20, 2017

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Have the presidential debates spelled disaster for McCain's campaign hopes?

We're finished with the three nationally televised U.S. presidential debates and the debate featuring the nominees for Vice President. Anybody who argues that we still don't have a clear idea of who Senator Barack Obama is, or that we haven't seen Senator John McCain at his best, just hasn't been watching or thinking about this election. Despite the dogged efforts of both candidates to hedge on the more politically difficult specifics of their policies, they have revealed a good deal about where they want to lead the United States, and much in the way of gestures that suggest who they are and how they might govern.

Senator McCain was in top form in the final debate, playing the role of fighter pilot targeting all his missiles on the enemy to - in his own words - "whip his [Obama's] you-know-what." He accused Obama of wanting to take money from Joe the Plumber so he could spread the wealth around as he sees fit. He linked Obama to President Herbert Hoover, whose policies led to the Great Depression of the 1930s. He demanded the truth about Obama's association with Bill Ayers, the terrorist when Obama was eight turned education reformer who was named Chicago's citizen of the year not long after Obama came to know him in his thirties. McCain followed up on that by accusing Obama of supporting a community group that is "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy" with their sloppy voter-registration programs.

How can any voter support a candidate who is guilty of all this? McCain took the offensive from the beginning and might have initially given the impression that he had Obama on the ropes. What he apparently didn't count on was his opponent's remarkable agility in parrying these attacks. McCain jabbed, while Obama aimed at convincing voters with his version of believable facts.

In a real coup de grace, Obama, with his characteristic smile, asserted that the McCain campaign had made it abundantly clear it would change the topic from the economy to Obama's allegedly dangerous and disloyal associations. To this Obama countered by naming some of his key advisers, including well known Republican leaders. He told Americans that all the negative campaigning reveals a lot more about McCain than it does about him, or about what Americans want to hear.

This is where the candidates' facial expressions might be making a real difference in voters' decisions. Obama never lost his cool, smiled throughout, and with a variety of facial expressions cast doubt on McCain's policies and his bona fides. By contrast, McCain was often tight-jawed. His smirk betrayed contempt, in contrast to Obama's expressions suggesting incredulity and civil debate. McCain's sarcasm didn't seem to work. People have an extraordinary ability to read facial expressions, even of total strangers. If the instant post-debate polls are to be believed, a large majority of viewers apparently combined McCain's gestures with his words and decided that his accusations were misleading, false, or irrelevant.

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