09/13/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

James Fallows in New 'Atlantic': Obama, in Debates, Has to Treat McCain Like Alan Keyes!

The Atlantic article revealing Clinton campaign emails is drawing all the attention but there is another fascinating politics piece in the same September issue, not yet online the last time I looked.

It's by longtime contributor James Fallows and it reveals his thoughts after doing what no sane person would do (as he admits): viewing every single GOP and Democratic primary debate.

The lengthy take reviews past Obama and McCain performances with an eye to predicting what will happen this fall. And it closes with an assessment of what a President Obama would be like as he puts "just words" into action.

Perhaps most pertinent for now is Fallows' view of the coming showdowns this autumn.

He observes that Obama was surprisingly tentative in most of his debates so far, which is why he did not easily triumph over Hillary Clinton. He was much more relaxed and effective in taking on his 2004 opponent in the U.S. Senate race, Alan Keyes.

Fallows predicts, however, that McCain will truly look old and "is not a good debater, not even by comparison with George W. Bush" so he "will play the expectations game as hard as he can, knowing that's how the press will keep score." And: "Once he gets on the stage, McCain will try to remind Obama of Hillary Clinton -- that is, of someone he must take seriously, someone who is willing to challenge him and even insult him to his face." Here's the key:

Obama "is vain about his idealism and 'nobility,'" a staff member for one of Obama's Democratic opponents (not Clinton) told me on the phone. "He is thin-skinned about having his motives and competence questioned, so that's what you do." Grizzled pols like Hillary Clinton or her husband would laugh off such an attempt; Obama may still be innocent enough to be shaken by it. McCain made many dismissive references to Obama after Obama became the presumptive nominee. The easy next step is to do so while looking at him.

For Obama the key is: look at John McCain, and see Alan Keyes.

Greg Mitchell's new book is So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq. He is editor of Editor & Publisher.