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Saddleback: The First McCain-Obama Encounter

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On Saturday, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama met for their first encounter of the 2008 presidential campaign at the Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, organized and moderated by Rick Warren, the pastor of the evangelical mega-church and the author of the 25 million copies bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. The meeting was not a debate; in fact the two candidates were on stage at the same time for only 36 seconds when Obama, who appeared first, departed and McCain arrived. However, the format provided a virtual confrontation of their differing positions without, as CNN's Bill Schneider observed, the usual acrimony of a debate.

Warren gave each candidate his own hour to respond to an identical set of questions. During Obama's hour, McCain, as Warren explained, waited in a "cone of silence," so that he would have no advance knowledge of the questions. There was no need for such measures because McCain, as did Obama, responded to all the questions with their previously-established and often-stated positions on the issues. There were no surprises in the content.

There was a surprise, however, in the delivery. For months now, the media has painted Barack Obama as the silver-tongued orator and John McCain as the stiff, error-prone, volatile curmudgeon. Stop the presses: their roles reversed.

Succinctness. Obama's answers rambled into long erudite analyses and complex discussions of nuances. He may have been that deliberate because he knew that "the conservative Saddleback crowd ...was not going to be on his side," as Byron York of The National Review said in his excellent discussion of the event.

In addition, Obama's rambles were exacerbated by a proliferation of "Ums," "Ahs," and "Y'knows," that made his answers seem even longer. McCain, on the other hand, true to his "Straight Talk Express" slogan, made his responses prompt and succinct. (A side note: In Warren's introduction to the format he said, "The number of questions will depend on how succinct the senator is." He pronounced the key word as "sussinct" when the correct pronunciation is "suksinkt.")

Time Management. Warren's introduction proved prophetic. Because Obama dwelled on his answers, he fielded fewer questions than did McCain. Warren pointed this out during McCain's section when he said, "Here is a security question I didn't get to with Senator Obama. We didn't have enough time." The briskness of McCain's answers made him appear more assured. They also gave him extra time to tell what he called "stories."

Stories. Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, (whom McCain referenced 3 times during his hour) was a master of the human interest story, a masterful technique he used often to connect with audiences and the electorate. McCain told four illustrative stories about himself or people he knew, Obama told just one.

Topspin. Politicians are known to "spin" their messaging, meaning to give their position a favorable slant. Spinning has taken on a pejorative connotation because it frequently results in unsatisfactory answers if not complete evasion. Topspin, a term drawn from tennis, in messaging consists of first dealing directly with an issue, and then (and only then) to go on to state one's own position. (For readers of my books, Topspin means adding a call to action, also known as Point B.) In the Saddleback forum, Barack Obama had 3 or 4 Topspins, one in response to Warren's question, "Tell me in a minute, why you want to be president?" John McCain had about a dozen.

Posture. The set was a simple desk with two chairs facing each other, one for Warren and the other for the candidate. During Obama's hour, he spent most of his time leaning toward Warren, his hands close to his body, appearing almost deferential; perhaps a function of being a liberal in a conservative enclave. During McCain's portion, he sat up straight, his elbow propped on the desk, talking to the crowd of 2,000, and appeared assertive and confident.

Add it up and McCain came out ahead on delivery skills. Michael Gerson of The Washington Post summed up Barack Obama's style "on Saturday night it did not compare well with McCain, who was decisive, passionate and surprisingly personal."

The two men will meet again in 3 direct debates between now and the election. How each of them presents could influence the outcome in a race that has a statistically-insignificant 3 points separating them in the public opinion polls. As Chuck Todd, NBC's political director noted about Obama "he seemed a little rusty and clearly has some work to do before he meets McCain face-to-face on Sept. 26, the night of the first presidential debate in Oxford, MS."

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