09/21/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

McCain Closes the Gap

This morning's Wall Street Journal three-column headline says it all: "McCain Closes Gap on Obama as Conventions Loom." The tightening race is vividly depicted on with a sharp dip in Obama's blue line and a sharp rise in McCain's red line. The RCP aggregation of 8 different polls has the spread at 1.4 points in Obama's favor. On Saturday, it was more than 3 points.

And then Saddleback happened. Obama and McCain were asked identical questions separately by evangelical pastor Rick Warren in a virtual debate. Since then, the media, both main stream and blogosphere, have been filled with analyses of each candidate's performance. Most found Obama "nuanced" and McCain "decisive" in their answers. Most analyses focused on messaging. My Monday post focused on delivery.

All these dynamics brought to mind the Kennedy/Nixon debate of 1960. That first-ever televised matchup became the seminal event that changed the face of political campaigns forever. Although Nixon had held a slight lead over Kennedy for most of that summer, the September debate vaulted Kennedy into the lead and ultimate victory.

Ask anyone today about what Kennedy or Nixon said and the odds are that they would be hard-pressed to tell you; ask anyone about how the candidates said what they said and you will get volumes about Nixon's darting eyes, his perspiring chin, his 5 o'clock shadow, and his halting delivery. The most telling indication of the impact of delivery is seen in the Gallup poll after that debate: the respondents who had listened to it on the radio, favored Nixon; those who had watched it on television, favored Kennedy.

Obama and McCain will have 3 more face-to-face debate encounters, as well as many other speaking opportunities from stump speeches to convention acceptances. How they deliver their messages will count as much, if not more, than what they say. Remember that it was Obama's delivery of his speech to nominate John Kerry four years ago that brought him out of obscurity to his position today.