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August 18th, 2008
11:52 AM ET

Is the tide turning?

David Gergen | Bio
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

Heading into the candidates' appearances on Saturday night at Saddleback Church, the conventional wisdom in politics was Barack Obama should have a clear upper hand in any joint appearance with John McCain - one the young, eloquent, cool, charismatic dude who can charm birds from the trees, the other the meandering, sometimes bumbling, old fellow who can barely distinguish Sunnis from Shiias.

Well, kiss that myth goodbye.

McCain came roaring out of the gate from the first question and was a commanding figure throughout the night as he spoke directly and often movingly about his past and the country's future. By contrast, Obama was often searching for words and while far more thoughtful, was also less emotionally connective with his audience.

To be sure, Obama held on to the loyalty of his own supporters - many have written in blog sites since how much they respected both his nuanced answers and the honesty of his convictions, especially his Christian faith.

There is no evidence that he lost ground through Saddleback. Moreover, Democrats can poke lots of holes in McCain's arguments and can charge that he is too much the warrior who would be too quick to send troops hither and yon. So, there is much for Democrats to chew on.

But the point is that McCain showed that he can be a much more formidable and effective campaigner in a joint appearance than hardly anyone imagined. The debates this fall are going to be pivotal to the final outcome of the election, and McCain gave a clear wake-up call to the Obama team that he may be much tougher to beat than expected.

Moreover, McCain is now on a sustained roll in his campaign. Since the time he shook up his organization a few weeks ago, he has been much more focused and has started to get through to voters. Democrats - and the press - didn't like the quality of those ads, but they seem to have worked politically. His stand on drilling and on Russia have also strengthened his aura of command. And now Saddleback.

That's quite a run and it is reflected in the polls: not only have the national numbers tightened up but McCain has actually moved ahead (slightly) in three key battleground states: Ohio, Virginia and Colorado.

A web site that averages all significant polls, RealClearPolitics.com, has previously projected that just looking at polls, Obama was ahead in states with over 300 electoral votes; now he is down to 275 - a tiny cushion since 270 is the magical number for winning.

At Saddleback, Obama surely held on to his base support but McCain strengthened his and probably appealed to some undecideds, too.

In short, the tide is moving for the first time in the Republican direction. And the realization is setting in that McCain might just win.

We are still many weeks away from the election and the overall landscape clearly favors the Democrats, but these latest developments put pressure on Obama and his party to pull themselves together or face a stunning upset. What must they do? For starters:

  • Obama must select a running mate who gives a lift to his campaign and can also hammer home a message in the convention and in the vice presidential debate this fall. He definitely needs a fighter by his side. (For my money, Hillary Clinton looks better and better; if not her, Joe Biden is probably the best fighter - perhaps Evan Bayh, or a surprise choice.)
  • The Democratic convention in Denver has to be a roaring success, not only uniting the party but sending a much clearer, crisper message about why 4 more years will be 4 more years of tears.
  • Obama himself must find his voice again, not only in his acceptance address but in the debates. He needs to bring passion as well as inspiration, a clear sense of what the choice is, and a compelling sense of why he is strong enough as well as wise enough to lead the country through tough times.

In the meantime, the message of the moment is that John McCain is no old fuddy-duddy who isn't sure where he is going; he was on fire at Saddleback and for the first time, he looks like he could win in November.


Filed under: Barack Obama • David Gergen • John McCain • Raw Politics • T1
soundoff (218 Responses)
  1. Phil

    I've been saying for a while now that McCain will do well in these venues, while most Obama supporters have suggested that "the old man will be blown out of the water" by their hero. Well, McCain is formidable, period. But keep telling yourself that a) the polls of COURSE are all wrong, b) Obama will DOMINATE in the debates, etc.

    Just make sure you don't pinch yourself and wake up.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:51 pm |
  2. Trisha

    Full disclosure – I am an Obama supporter. As such I believe Obama did just fine in an environment that more suited a Republican candidate. McCain did give clear concise answers. Obama's were more long but that is definitely more his style for better or worse. For undecided voters, I believe they will have to get more information in order to decide. But I want any independents and undecided voters to keep this one thought it mind – a friend who is a veteran of the Iraq war said to me he would NEVER (his emphasis) vote for McCain because he is a war monger. He said he sees McCain taking us into more wars. Do you want us to go into more wars? Listen to how McCain is already talking about Russia.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:50 pm |
  3. michael

    To Cindy and the rest of the people who believe that McCain didnt listen and hear the questions before he came up..wake up and go back to the interview again. He answers before the questions are stated or even asked. At a point he asked Ric if they got to a question yet....imagine that is so funny only few who watch it and record to play back can really pick those out. Pls go back and watch it again. everyone

    August 18, 2008 at 10:50 pm |
  4. Deano

    To all the Obamites crying about McCain knowing the questions before the debate, he did and so did Obama. It was clearly stated in advance that both candidates were given prior knowledge of the subject that were going to be discussed several days before the event. There is no travesty here; you are just being used by the liberal media again. The big media is leading you like sheep to the slaughterhouse (unless you want to live in a Socialist society) in their portrayal as Obama being some kind of Savior to the United States. John McCain clearly showed which of the candidates was the best choice for President of the United Stateson Saturday night at the forum and it is him.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:50 pm |
  5. Karen

    These debates only matter if Obama doesn't pick Clinton.

    If he does, the race is over. Obama wins.

    At this point, I wonder how badly Obama and his supporters want the presidency. Just pick her already and let's move on to the White House.

    You pick her, you please the other half, you win. Simple.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:49 pm |
  6. John B

    I haven't read every one of the comments, but it seems no-one here is calling McCain on his "cross" story which so closely duplicates the same story in Solzhenitsyn's Gulag ArchipelagO, pub. in 1973. Just way too close to be believable....and remember that Sol is one of McCain's favorite authors...The only counter that I've seen that has any merit is "the cross is a central symbol, this could have happened twice." Well, maybe..but then why does McCain tell it a bit differently each time...?
    Also, McCain clearly got a jump on the questions so he had more time to prep. Repub dirty tricks are always with us.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:49 pm |
  7. MK

    So, let me get this straight ... Gergen believes that a guy who just said that human rights should be applied to zygotes inside of a woman's body, that there is clear evil in people with no ambiguity and that he would not support judges that he himself voted to accept.

    What a fraud the GOPers are. And the MSM just eats this crap up without question.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:48 pm |
  8. Amina from TN

    let me just say that, it was bais very narrow minded and it made me Completely loose interest in the candidates. lets keep religion out of the race please.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  9. Jeff an Independent

    Look closely at the McCain's careful words: he did not hear Obama. Doesn't say his staff didn't, and pass the questions to him. He was obviously prepped; could hardly contain himself to blurt out his ready one-line answers.

    Wait until the debates! Obama will clean his muddled clock.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:47 pm |
  10. Matt

    "David,
    The tide has been turning in McCain’s favor for a while now. It’s about time that the press realized what the American people already have. With this forum McCain just showed exactly what he is …a very formidable candidate that Obama will in no way walk all over. In fact he answered the questions way more eloquently than Obama. I can see now why Obama will not do town hall meetings with McCain. He’d blow him out of the water! Obama is all talk with very little substance to back it up, this forum showed that in spades!"

    -Cindy

    In other words, Cindy, McCain's 'eloquent' talk can be taken seriously and Obama's can't? Exactly why?

    August 18, 2008 at 10:46 pm |
  11. Art Micharlson

    If you lack any knowledge of who McCain really is just read FRANK RICH in this past Sunday's New Yourk TI imes section NEWS OF THE WEEK IN REVIEW. It is a wakeup call.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:46 pm |
  12. steve

    Barrack was far more thoughtful? Were we watching the same meeting? I support Barrack, but he didn't come across looking good. He is a very charismatic speaker, but when it comes to off the bat questions, he struggles. It is as simple as that.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:44 pm |
  13. Bruce

    Both sides were aware of what the topics of discussion were going to be. No one in their right mind would go into a forum without having that knowledge. It is the responsibility of the moderator and participants to make sure the topics are known in advance. It is not cheating, it is the way it is supposed to be done otherwise you may end up with several minutes of dead air if the topics are not elaborated upon.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:43 pm |
  14. Cherokee Kid

    The Empty Suit seems to be at about the right "pay grade". Let's just leave him there and let grownups run the Country.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  15. ebony

    David, I have to disagree about how great McCain was! I really think that the media continues to give him a pass! He was very superficial in answering his questions! He took it as a joke and all he did was use the forum for his stump speech and for story telling! However one thing I did get from the forum is that McCain is definitely a warmonger! His only solution to any kind of conflict is WAR, WAR and more WAR! McCain did not impress me at all! He came off as being very PHONEY!

    August 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  16. GerryM

    If the analogy that is to be used here is tides, then recall that tides come in and go out. They follow a natural path and process that is a manifestation of geology and magnetism. This is not the kind of analogy that fits well in a presidential race. Historically, two major issues resonate in all presidential elections: can I trust this person, and how will my personal economic life benefit if he/she is elected? Obama wins handily on the economic front. Another four years of Republican supply side economics will bankrupt the entire middle class in America. And we in the middle class know this. The real challenge for Obama is the trust issue. That is way McCain is constantly attacking Obama for being different, and not one of us. For those of us who have observed Obama and watched his progress through the primary elections it is plain that he is one of us and that he does share values that are common to the American experience. So, it’s not about tides. What it is about is perception of reality and a personal estimate of how well off I will be after this person is president for four years.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  17. Ann

    David, it is very odd that the group of people that was watching the Faith Forum with me, felt Sen. McCain had the questions in advance. As most of the people there have talked about his previous blunders prior to the Forum on Saturday. So it is very unfair to say McCain did so well considering the fact Pastor Warren, mentioned he did not know McCain was not in the cone of silence just tonight on the Larry King show. However, Mr. McCain answered the question when asked by Pastor Warren, he had his ear to the wall. Why didn't Mr. McCain say well I was only there for so many minutes because I was in the Limo for 30 to 45 mins while you were asking Sen. Obama questions?

    August 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  18. Dave in Wheat Ridge

    Of course McCain had the advantage when addressing an audience of religious wackos. No substance needed, since you need to speak at a 4th grade level to get an idea across to that crowd. Simple ideas for simple minds. Obama is used to dealing with Harvard Law students and constitutional law professors; McCain, with Republicians. McLame was in his element this time – it's as "simple" as that.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:42 pm |
  19. Sarah

    Being an undecided voter, I felt that the debate favored Obama, rather than McCain. Obama came across as thoughtful, and interested in adressing all the nuances of the questions being asked. I found him articulate and intelligent. On the contrary, McCain seemed far from center, with answers made ready to cater to the Republican Party, which turned me off, because It felt disingenuous. Although I agreed with some of McCains points, he seemed unbending towards war, which also turned me off. When his first answer to the question about the wise men he would turn to was a military man, and the second a CEO, I found that very telling as to his intentions.

    In the end, I don't think I want to vote for either one of them because I abhor the foriegn policy of one and wholeheartedly disagree with the social programs of the other.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:41 pm |
  20. Texrat

    They're both opportunists of the worst sort, but McCain is the worse of the two. He walked into the White House a maverick a while back and walked out a newly-anointed neocon... blessed now by the same people who tanked him in his last presidential run. The irony and hypocrisy are overshadowed only by the ignorance and apathy of voters who don't know and/or don't care.

    Vote for Ralph Nader or Bob barr... two candidates who have stayed true to the maverick credo. McCain sold out.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:40 pm |
  21. michael

    The major problem we see tonight is a man asnwering the questions without thoughts and judgement. Empty barrels makes the loudest noise. I may say we dont need fast war ready answers. we need a man who will take decisions not on what it looks or rush to make comments. But look within and under the surface to decide cos his decision might make or mar our international or local image. Bin laden is not the only evil we have so many evils everywhere both within and without.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:39 pm |
  22. Ann

    What about looking into the similarities between McCain's moving story about the cross in the dirt, and a very similar one told by Solzhenysten in Gulag Archipelago?

    August 18, 2008 at 10:38 pm |
  23. sid

    McCain or Obama,
    Wow what great choices, I rather watch the olympics.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:37 pm |
  24. Jae

    I personally thought Obama was better at this Saddleback event. I felt that Obama's responses were honest and trustful, whereas McCain's responses were probably honest, but also very political. Obama was more eloquent and elaborated upon what he would do as president. (Think of this "evil" question) McCain again and again says that he knows how to win wars, but never really tells what he would exactly do as president. Unfortunately, simple and emotion-arousing answers are politically better than the thoughtful ones.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:36 pm |
  25. Trevor Guerlain

    David,

    Thank you for acknowledging the obvious. There may be room for you in the McCain administration. Nice balanced piece, btw.

    No-Obama '08

    August 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  26. Brad

    I too am sick and tired of hearing about the surge and Patreus being the greatest thing since sliced bread. All they did in the "surge" was bring troop levels closer to what the original planners said it would take and that Rumsfeld laughed off as ridiculous. The surge is nothing more than a Republican and White House buzz word to cover their butts and to run from how many Americans lost their lives due to Rumsfeld's idiocy..and Bush's blind faith in one of the worst SOD in the history of the US. Next time McCain or someone else touts the "surge" please have the balls to call them out for what they are, which is being weak and shameful liars.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  27. OG

    You all sound so childish trying to claim that McCain cheated.
    Obama's studdering and stammering and not really answering questions was why he lost.
    Oh, I forgot, Barack Hussein Obama is just sooo much more brilliant than all of us common folk that he has to take time, and muddle through his answers.... It is obvious he has no moral core and he is in way over his head. I cannot even believe he is going to be the Democratic nominee.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:34 pm |
  28. Chris from NY

    David,
    Most of Obama supporters look up to you for insight. But for you to make us nervous going in to the convention is not the smartest or the best thing to do. Why are guys always preluding doom for Obama? You started spelling doom for Obama soon after the primaries and haven't stopped and haven't stopped since then. He went overseas and everyone attacked him. He came back and everyone called him arrogant. McCain barked and all the media outlets went his way. He's lied so many times and no one called him up on it. Rick Warren called them in for a conversation and McCain made it a campaign stump. Instaed of giving the news the pundits awarded the night to McCain. I am beginning to believe what a friend of mine said sometime ago. That McCain was bought over by the big white boys so he could allow Bush a second term and they will give him (McCain)one term. I think the big white boys are making on their promise.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  29. Joe

    I feel that McCain will lead us into another war and then die in office and the VP will take over. Give Obama a chance. It seems every president we have had grows old in office. Hate to see that happen to Obama but he wants the job. His answers were thoughtful and he was careful what he said. As for McCain he already knew what the questions were. It was a joke I thought while watching. What is wrong with this picture. He always has to read his responses and he often miss speaks. Just how did he do that unless he knew before hand what all the questions were. Maybe he was wired. I will be proud to have Obama as President.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:33 pm |
  30. tom...pittsburgh, pa

    Obama is good at speaking to the public only if it is on a teleprompter. He has no experience and rose to fame because of his race. Democrats have no clue whats going on and have an agenda that only hippies can admire. McCain is the far better choice hands down.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm |
  31. Danny

    I agree that McCain is surging. He will wisely choose to announce his VP candidate the day after the DNC convention. If he gets too far ahead, both-ways-barack could do something drastic, just to get elected. I am referring to him choosing his arch nemesis as his VP, Hilary. That is the only way I can see him winning this thing now. He has defined himself as a tax and spend, flip-flopping liberal. McCain will also tear him up during the debates. This is why Obama wisely chose to only debate McCain 3 times! We need true leadership in these troubled times, not a rookie with "just words!"

    August 18, 2008 at 10:31 pm |
  32. Pat_North Carolina

    Not enough people seem to have noticed that Obama thought deeply and answered reflectively while many times McCain didn't even answer the question! For example, when asked how faith played a part in his daily life, he told a 40 year old story. It didn't sound to me like he had a daily, personal relationship with God.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:30 pm |
  33. Mike in NYC

    To Larry, who wrote:

    "Mike, which ‘protected group’ do I belong to? Ah, is it because I’m Scottish-American?"

    I am sorry if I misjudged your sympathies, if indeed I did misjudge them. I assumed that you were advocating a particular path should BO not become POTUS. Again, if this was not your position, I apologize.

    Scottish-Americans, being white, are not "protected." Unlike non-whites, whites are actively discouraged from pursuing their group interests, which are all too real.

    Your sympathies should be with your own people, since other groups would have no sympathy for them, to say the least, should they gain political ascendancy.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:30 pm |
  34. Kenneth

    It sounds like John McCain knew the question beforehand during that forum. If reports are true that someone feed him the questions while travelling in his motorcade, that was not fair at all. And for him to claim that he was in a secure room while actually he was outside is dishonest.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:29 pm |
  35. Gerry W

    David, why can't you come out and say , that not only are Mc Cain's ad negative, they are false and misleading.? And as far as Saddleback, the MSM did the usual thing for McCain --lower expectations. Duh --speaking to an audience who are pro-life, anti anything gay , who do you think was going to win the audience's favor.? The MSM did not do a proper job of vetting George W. Bush, the Iraq war, and now you are letting John Mc Cain get away with lies and deceptions and completily misleading statements about his record.. Perhaps you should read a biography of Edward R. Murrow and find out what journalism is all about, Good Night and Good Luck

    August 18, 2008 at 10:27 pm |
  36. Barb H

    Sounds like the same old double shuffle that the Bush Administration has been feeding us for the past 8 years. It's the ultimate game of "Who Do You Trust?" I voted for Bush twice, but I've learned my lesson. Has America?

    August 18, 2008 at 10:27 pm |
  37. Lynn

    Larry said in a post that if Obama is denied his chance at POTUS, that there will be a crimson tide on the streets of America. So are we to vote for Obama because we fear that people will riot and shed the blood of those who don't vote for Obama? This is a threat of violence based on how people choose to vote and is quite sick and inappropriate. Who moderates this and why on earth would you approve that post? Anyone who incites violence over a vote where we are all supposed to have the freedom and right to vote for who we decide on is warped. I for one will not vote in fear and I will not vote for Obama.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:27 pm |
  38. Reasonable Observer

    I find the whole "McCain had the questions in advance" argument amusing. Since he is an old, bumbling man, he sure did a great job with the minutes he had to prepare after hearing the questions on the way to the church where the interview was held.

    Sorry liberals, you cannot have it both ways.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:26 pm |
  39. steve in k.c.

    "above my pay scale" ~ Dumbest answer ever in the history of answers.

    What else is above your pay scale? The presidency maybe?

    August 18, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  40. Fred C Dobbs

    AC, if you and Barack Obama supporters think that the presidency is his for the taking – think again.

    The office of the presidency is just a tad higher than Obama's pay grade level.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:25 pm |
  41. lampe

    Jane h. I hate to inform you, but David Gergen, no more panders to The Clinton's and Sen McCain, then Roland Martin and Donna Brazile pander to Obama. And when McCain wins, I hope it will be Roland Martin, that retires, because I am sick and tired of his race-baiting stories. David, I think you are right, people are finally starting to wake-up and see just who the real Obama is.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:24 pm |
  42. JAC

    LOL! tjs says that democrats have cell phones and could not be reached for polling! LOL!! Like Republicans still use only the corded right? And therefore could all be reached! LOL! Spoken like a true open minded umm...ummm...w/e
    Obama stands no chance guys! Americans are waking up! The well plannned new voice is being seeen as he really is. Not who he wants ya'll to think he is. I have to laugh. One born every minute.
    Cell phones... only republicans! LOL!!!!

    August 18, 2008 at 10:21 pm |
  43. Charles L. Morse Sr .

    Obama didn't do well in this debate . He showed his lack of experence and his judgment on the issues . If he can do no better in up coming debates . Think how well carrier politicians will work him in the future if elected . I'M not happy with McCain on many issues from the past he has backed . But I fear Obama with out more experence and exposer in the senate . I can't see betting on a gift horse with out seeing him run and a consistent stride and history . So far he hasen't empress me with his stride or history . So far he seem's to be talking with a mouth full of hay and a eye for the oats over the fence .
    Chuck in Tennessee

    August 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  44. Susan in San Diego

    I wouldn't vote for McCain if he was the only one running. I'm so sick of these "Jesus Freaks", and everyone telling everyone how to live their lives. Where has all the common sense gone these days? They dislike anyone who isn't "Christian", This country has many,many different religions and it's President shouldn't be ONLY for the Christians,BY the Christians. Folks, get a life!!!!

    August 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  45. lou-dallas

    ...well, in some form or other, the truth is now becoming apparent that ole 'Barry' is so totally inept to hold the job of president. The news media that are in the tank for Obama can not protect him now. It probably will get worse for him in the later days that are coming. I bet some of you Obama kool aid drinkers are kinda wondering where Hillary is now, huh..!!??.........NObama...

    August 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  46. Kevin

    John McCain was not in the church or the "Cone of Silence" at the start of Obama's interview. He read, heard, or was given the questions while he was in his limo during the first 30 minutes of Obama's interview. He cheated in church and has no moral authoritry to lead our country. He is pro life and pro war- he does not value human life on earth- there isn't a single war that he doesn't want to fight. He has tired ideas, values and needs to ride into the sunset. God Bless Barack Obama and America!

    August 18, 2008 at 10:20 pm |
  47. Jeff

    Sorry, but the one Obama should pick or should I say talk into it is Colin Powell. If he can get Colin Powell to be his running mate this race is over! You get a his expierence (he is loved by many and respected) he has the exp that Obama lacks. Get Powell and you just got yourself the white house.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:18 pm |
  48. Larry

    @Jo Ann. I agree with the town hall meetings; but not so much the debates. HRC is an excellent debater and BO is not that far removed from when he was at Harvard so he too is probably a more polished debater than McCain. It will be interesting to see what rules with which they moderate the debates.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:08 pm |
  49. jane h.

    Mr. Gergen,

    Your analysis of the Pastor Warren question and answer session does not surprise me a bit. You so want Obama to select your favorite friend, Hillary, for VP that you are trying to make him appear to be in need of her and the Clinton's services. Also, behind Hillary is your blind faith in John McCain. After all aren't the Clinton team and McCain good friends?
    So what is your right, Mr. Gergen, to use your media stature to influence the upcoming election? Please, if Obama should somehow win, will you please retire? If not, you can go right on singing Hillary and John's praises, and all your fellow pundits on CNN can keep on spinning. I really don't think any of you are as smart as you think. Nor do I think you know what this country needs.
    Also, if Obama is inspirational you call him an empty suit, and if he isn't you blame him for not being inspirational enough. I am sorry to think it may take another 4 more years of Republican messes before people in this country wake up! But that is okay with people like you because you know Hillary will be waiting in the wings. You should stop trying to con all of us, and show us some respect.

    August 18, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  50. Jeanette

    Yes Ron from Arizona, I'll respond to you.

    In your statement " its not black or white but the raciest against black people". It sounds like a very raciest statement to me. What makes you think only white people are raciest? There are raciest on both sides and when everyone wants to admit this maybe we will be one step closer to changing the problem. You need to take a good look at yourself.

    Jeanette–Missouri

    August 18, 2008 at 9:52 pm |
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