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First thoughts: The last dance

From Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Carrie Dann
HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Believe it or not, but after some 40 debates, the 2008 presidential debate season finally came to a close last night. Remarkably, the country only got three debates for the general election, while they were treated to about 35 for the primaries. This is a point that we tired members of the press don't emphasize enough, but what does it say about our presidential election system that we spent 15 months on the primaries and approximately 75 days for the general (conventions to election day)? Here we are at one of the most critical junctures in American history, and we're cramming six months of a general election into six weeks? Crazy. Now, as for the debate, supporters of McCain feel great and supporters of Obama feel relieved. Translation: McCain was aggressive and Obama didn't commit any major mistakes. 

Video: NBC Political Director Chuck Todd offers his first read on the final presidential debate, swing voters and the battle moving to traditional Republican turf.

*** Appealing to the base vs. appealing to indies: McCain didn't accomplish the major goal of disqualifying Obama as president without raising his negatives. He was certainly aggressive and many a supporter was probably heartened by some of his relentless hits. But did he make any gains with the middle? Time and again last night, Obama went out of his way to find a center-right watchword or phrase (tax cuts, life, responsibility, charter schools, tort reform) to defend himself or make a point. McCain, on the other hand, spent a lot of time talking to his current supporters -- but not the middle. In fact, he just didn't talk to his base but those who are following this race most closely in his base since many of his attacks were done in shorthand without explanation for the lay viewer. The exchange over abortion was probably the best example of this, where Obama's language probably pleased 60% of the electorate versus 40% for McCain. It's as if BOTH candidates were trying to win Indiana or West Virginia last night. And that's not good for McCain; we didn't see evidence he was trying to win swing voters in Wisconsin, Colorado or Florida.

*** Enter Joe, The Plumber: In addition, the tax conversation may be one of the bigger mis-reads of this debate season. Taxes and spending are way down the list of issue importance in current polls.(1% in a recent Washington Post/ABC poll).  For McCain, talking about lower taxes never hurts, but it's just not a priority with voters right now. And some voters might struggle connecting taxes to the current economic problems -- especially when taxes are relatively low. Of course, the best hit of the night for McCain was his introduction to the country of "Joe the plumber." McCain mentioned him no fewer than 20 times and certainly guaranteed a Day 2 storyline that's controlled by his campaign, since many in the media will be seeking out "Joe" for his debate take. For a campaign that strives to win a news cycle, we're guessing the McCain campaign will be pleased tomorrow.

Video: Holding an impromptu news conference outside his home, Joe Wurzelbacher says he wished the presidential candidates talked more about the issues — and less about him.

*** Where is 'The Happy Warrior'? In many ways, McCain just doesn't seem like he's enjoying this race. We're not going to try and put him on the couch; plenty of columnists will do that over the next 19 days (which could become an ugly "what went wrong" media conversation rather than a "what could still go right"). But one of the reasons we think Obama just pummels McCain in post debate polls and focus groups is demeanor. (And we're not sure McCain's demeanor would be the same if Hillary Clinton, whom he seems to respect more, had been the Dem nominee.) Obama has consistently looked viewers in the eye, while McCain has spent more time addressing the moderators.  Obama has gotten much better about referring to voters more than himself while McCain refers to himself more than the voters. Check out the closing statements. Here's McCain's: "I have a record of reform, and taking on my party, the other party, the special interests…" And Obama's: "You know, over the last 20 months, you've invited me into your homes. You've shared your stories with me. And you've confirmed once again the fundamental decency and generosity of the American people. And that's why I'm sure that our brighter days are still ahead."

*** The big picture: As for the big picture, it's hard to see how this debate changed the trajectory of this race. It's now clear, for posterity, that Obama won the debate season. McCain might have won the convention season (with the Palin pick), and that kept him in the game. But the combination of the massive economic downturn with the debates has put McCain in as deep of a hole as any nominee has been this late in the process since Bob Dole. The map continues to look more favorable to Obama than McCain. But it's now in the hands of the voters. Yet there's not much more information left to learn.

Video: NBC's Andrea Mitchell reviews the final presidential debate between Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain.

*** The McCain camp's memo: So what did a Minnesota focus group of voters -- that McCain's campaign conducted regarding last night's debate -- say? Well, NBC News has obtained a strategy memo about the findings (some good, some bad, and some obvious). One conclusion from it on health care is an excellent example of how Obama has just dominated an issue that has flown under the media's radar: The respondents believed Obama's interpretation of McCain's health care plan more so than McCain's interpretation. And that's not a good sign when your opponent has framed your health care plan for you -- but that's exactly what's happened. Other intel the McCain camp received from their dial test: Joe the plumber didn't play as well as hoped (same in media focus groups); Obama successfully deflected Ayers, and there now might not be enough time to fully prosecute the associations strategy." In the final analysis, the campaign is being advised that Obama's experience and readiness is still something that can be exploited by McCain.

*** And speaking of exploiting Obama's lack of experience: The RNC independent expenditure unit is up with a new ad that uses dark music and notes that the current financial crisis will be the very first crisis a President Obama has ever handled. The last time we could find an ad that was run at a similar point was by Carter against Reagan in 1980. Check it out, courtesy of one of the best political sites on the 'net, the Living Room Candidate. By the way, the Obama campaign has an ad that argues McCain voted 90% of the time with Bush. 

*** The bite of the day: Here's what Obama just said at a fundraiser this morning: "For those of you who are feeling giddy or cocky and think this is all set, I just say one word. I guess it's two words for you: New Hampshire. You know, I've been in these positions before where we were favored and the press starts getting carried away and we end up getting spanked. And so that's another good lesson that Hillary Clinton taught me."

*** The battleground story: It's worth noting that Obama's schedule over next four days tells battleground map story as well as any poll does. Obama will be making two Missouri stops, a Virginia visit, and a North Carolina one. And for your Landslide Watch: The Republican National Committee's independent expenditure unit has pulled its TV from Wisconsin, meaning the ONLY blue state that both McCain and the RNC are contesting fully right now: Pennsylvania.  And the National Republican Senatorial Committee has pulled its ads from its lone target: Mary Landrieu. That likely means that, for a second-straight cycle, not a single Senate Dem incumbent is going to lose. The NRSC money has been moved to Georgia. 

*** Can you hear me now? This Washington Post piece got lost in last night's debate, but the Obama campaign has told First Read that it will be seizing on it in the next few days. The Post reported that Verizon and AT&T -- free of charge -- set up cell towers on Cindy McCain's ranch in Sedona. The problem: "Ethics lawyers said Cindy McCain's dealings with the wireless companies stand out because her husband, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), is a senior member of the Senate commerce committee, which oversees the Federal Communications Commission and the telecommunications industry. He has been a leading advocate for industry-backed legislation, fighting regulations and taxes on telecommunication services." In a statement, the McCain campaign said the cell towers were temporary, primarily for the Secret Service. "The campaign has been informed that the Verizon Wireless temporary facility was specifically requested by the Secret Service pursuant to their existing contract with Verizon Wireless, and that AT&T decided to install a similar one to service its customers during this period. These were decisions by the companies involved and the Secret Service, and not the McCain campaign." Just curious: How long has the Obama camp been sitting on this hit? It seemed designed to be an "in case of" pushback should McCain have won the perception game at last night's debate.  

*** On the trail: McCain holds a rally in Downingtown, PA, tapes Letterman, and then appears at the Al Smith Dinner in New York. Obama begins his day raising money in New York City, campaigns in Londonderry, NH, and then also makes an appearance at the Al Smith Dinner before hitting a NYC fundraiser featuring Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. Biden, in Los Angeles, tapes appearances for Leno and Ellen before raising money. And Palin stumps in Maine (Bangor) and North Carolina (Elon). And Michelle Obama holds a rally in Pittsburgh. 
Countdown to Election Day 2008: 19 days
Countdown to Electoral Vote Count: 84 days
Countdown to Inauguration Day 2009: 96 days
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