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Rating The Presidential Hopefuls' First Debate


We're joined now by NPR News analyst Juan Williams, with his insights on last night's debate. Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good Morning.

SIMON: First, how do you think they did?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, you've got to think of it in terms of the audience who's open to being persuaded here, Scott, and you really aren't talking to the base of either party. What you're talking to are swing voters, people in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and the Midwest, or out in Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, who have yet to make up their mind, and overwhelmingly, those are white, suburban women in swing states. And so McCain wanted to come off as not angry, as bipartisan. He starts out by talking about Teddy Kennedy's health. And Obama wanted to come off as crisp and knowing what he was doing and appearing presidential. And in that sense, I think they both did very well.

CNN had a poll done of people who were watching, and they found that men thought McCain won, about 46-43, but Obama did very well among women, winning 59-31. So ultimately, two-thirds said both of these men could handle the job of being president, and that's very important for Barack Obama, not to appear as a risky choice for any independent-minded voter.

SIMON: Clive Crook of the Financial Times was on a few minutes ago and pointed to the fact that neither of the candidates could really pin down as to what sacrifices they might make in their campaign promises having to confront a $700 billion rescue plan that might pass, or at least be agreed to this weekend. At the same time, if you set that aside, there was an awful lot of substance here, it seems to me.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. I thought it was a very strong debate, pointed debate, and as you say, the substance allowed you to have a strong sense of contrast between the two. So if you're trying to make up your mind, again, if you're open to being persuaded, you could say, oh, I agree with this candidate or I agree with that one. You saw McCain saying he is able to go about reform in terms of cutting the size of a budget, and you saw that he's talking a lot about earmarks. Then you'd hear Obama come back and he says, wait a second. You know, the earmarks are only about 18 billion. What about the 800 billion you're talking in terms of making the Bush tax cuts permanent? And I think one of the reasons Obama may have done well with the women voters was he focused so much on trying to help the middle class, talking about issues like wages, high unemployment, making sure your kids can afford going to college. I think those issues stuck well with the women who were listenning.

SIMON: If you score this more or less a draw, do the subsequent debates and the vice-presidential debate become even more important?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I think the first debate is the most important debate by far. After that you're playing catch-up or you're trying to correct misimpressions. The Palin-Joe Biden debate is going to be very important, especially after Palin's tough going this week with Katie Couric in that interview.

SIMON: NPR's Juan Williams, thank you so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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