Standing before a friendly gathering at the College of William and Mary on Tuesday, Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, was the happiest worried person in the room. Just hours before the second debate between Obama and McCain was set to begin, the Dow was plummeting again. "I feel sorry for you," he told the 40 or so students in the room."It's a hard economy right now. Nobody can buy a house, nobody can buy a car, and they're cutting back on your credit card limits."
McAuliffe was smiling anyway, nearly bouncing with characteristic optimism. "Look," he said, "I'd rather become a CEO with a company that's down than become a CEO with a company that's running high."
Nowhere to go but up.
And, as McAuliffe pointed out, things were definitely looking up for Obama. Most notably, his poll numbers were up in Pennsylvania, where McAuliffe had just returned from helping to kick off canvassing efforts. "There were an extraordinary number of people coming out," he said.
Obama was also up in Ohio, in Florida, in New Hampshire. "And he's up in Virginia," he said. "And that's in a state where a democrat hasn't won a presidential race since 1964."
Yet things were looking down, too. Maybe not for Obama, but for the country as a whole. That's why the question-and-answer session felt a little somber. One student studying law wondered how graduate students can get health insurance. To enroll in the law school at William and Mary, she'd had to prove she had health insurance. But as a young adult, she'd found the insurance hard to afford.
Under Obama, McAuliffe told her, she'd be able to buy insurance from a common pool.
An older woman wanted to know about Medicare. With the federal deficit increasing by the day, would there be any money left for her?
McAuliffe had bad news for her. As the population ages, he said, "Medicare is going to explode. That's why we have to put our finances in order."
"But," he added, "if you're over 65 and you make less than $55,000 a year, Obama will see that you pay no taxes."
The woman turned to her friend sitting next to her. "Oh good!" she said, "That's me!"
It was that kind of afternoon. Bad news mixed with a few ounces of hope and optimism. Would McCain run a negative campaign, now that the race is down to the wire?
"It's going to be ugly," McAuliffe said. "They're not going to give up the White House easily."
Were there still a lot of Hillary supporters who wouldn't support Obama?
McAuliffe's eyes lit up on that one. "Look. She got 18 million votes. Out of those, 17.99 -something are all for Barack.** It's just those last few who get on TV."
**The original version mistakenly read "18,000 votes."
Follow Emily Pease on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ecwp