Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, heads into the first debate Friday with a track record as a scrappy combatant and the instincts of a fighter pilot, prepared to take out his opponent and willing to take risks to do so.
He has used fairly consistent techniques during his roughly 30 debates on the national stage: He is an aggressive competitor who scolds his opponents, grins when he scores and is handy with the rhetorical shiv. Just ask Mitt Romney, whom McCain filleted on several occasions in debates during the primaries, perhaps most infuriatingly for Romney when McCain misleadingly asserted that Romney favored a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.
A review of several of McCain’s debates shows that he is most comfortable and authentic when the subject is foreign policy. And in a stroke of good fortune, foreign policy is the topic for Friday, the first of three 90-minute debates with Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee.
Voters give higher marks to McCain as a potential commander in chief, and Obama should expect McCain to question his credentials for the job at every turn — and to distort his views, as Romney insisted he did.
McCain is likely to steer the conversation, as he has in prior debates, to his captivity in Vietnam. It was the bedrock experience of his life and is the organizing principle of his political identity.
He showcased it most triumphantly last October in a debate in Orlando, Fla. The moderator noted that while McCain had strongly supported the troop surge in Iraq, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the likely Democratic nominee, wanted to pull the troops out. McCain was asked whether the surge was a winning issue for Republicans in 2008. With a quick nod to the troops, McCain, characteristically, hijacked the question and skipped to pork barrel spending, his favorite bete noire.
“In case you missed it, a few days ago, Sen. Clinton tried to spend $1 million on the Woodstock Concert Museum,” McCain said slyly. “Now, my friends, I wasn’t there,” he continued, letting it sink in why he had missed that ‘60s be-in.
“I’m sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event,” he deadpanned, pausing again to stoke the culture wars. “I was tied up at the time.” The audience roared with approval and rose to its feet for an extended ovation. It was an overwhelming display of affirmation almost unheard of in a debate format.
Most of McCain’s moments on the debate stage are rarely that dramatic, but they are not without flair. He uses short, active verbs that project strength, and he can connect with audiences on a visceral level using down-to-earth language. He was one of 10 Republicans on stage when the primary debates began in May 2007, but he managed to stand out with one vivid remark. Saying he would do “whatever is necessary” to capture Osama bin Laden, he declared, “I’ll follow him to the gates of hell.”
But that debate also showed that McCain’s performances could be uneven. He stumbled over some words. He looked confused at several junctures and was slow on the draw, retrieving his time on occasion to amend earlier answers.