So Many Questions, So Little Time Left

I recently asked Tucker Carlson, “What do you think the undecideds are waiting for? What haven’t they heard yet?” His response was tinged with the kind of acerbic and colorful wit I expect of him. “If you’re undecided at this stage in the election, you don’t deserve to vote.”

While it’s unlikely anyone will be moved to forcibly deny the still-confused or unconvinced voters their rightful place in the voting booth come November 4th, it is hard to believe there are still some Americans who legitimately don’t know if they favor John McCain or Barack Obama. We’ve been campaigning along with them for what has felt like a grueling eternity. The conventions are but a memory. Hillary feels like a year ago. Who can even remember the primaries?

But at the first presidential debate in New York since 1960, held at Hofstra University, all undecided eyes were on moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News, who — it was hoped — would ask the very questions fence-sitters so desperately need answered.

Schieffer needed to hone in on the gaps, and he set the tone immediately in his opening line, “Let’s try to tell the people tonight something they haven’t heard.” It was an auspicious start, and in a number of cases he delivered.

He asked eight major questions, only two of which specifically focused on the economy. Of the other six, three centered on social issues, character and leadership, and three concerned domestic policy issues.

It was the three questions not focused on policy that should prove most beneficial to undecideds. One read almost like an indictment. “Both of you pledged to take the high road. Are each of you willing to sit at this table and say to each other’s face what your campaigns have said to each other?”

The question was just what a number of voters — leaning left and right — wanted to ask, and an opportunity for McCain to bring up Obama’s nefarious association with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers and his ties to ACORN, which drew a smug laugh from the Illinois Senator. McCain’s willingness to raise the issue was a chance to please his base, and Obama’s defense of that relationship was an opportunity to alleviate some of the fears undecideds may have in his judgment.

Schieffer also asked the candidates whether they’d appoint Supreme Court judges who disagree with them on Roe v. Wade, something we’ve heard little about over the course of the election and that remains viscerally important to many voters. Here McCain seized on the opportunity to assert his pro-life position while at the same time assuring undecideds and moderates that he would make appointments based on qualifications, and not ideology. Obama used the opportunity to discuss the nuances of his pro-choice position and defend against accusations that he favors late-term abortion and a bill that would have required medical intervention to save a baby that survived a botched abortion.

And a particularly well-crafted question addressed the candidates’ running mates. In addition to asking McCain and Obama why Sarah Palin and Joe Biden are ready to be president if need be, Schieffer asked Obama if he thought Palin was qualifed and McCain if Biden was qualified. This gave each candidate the opportunity to highlight the weaknesses of their opposing running mates, not from surrogates or campaign spokespersons, but in their own words.

But as effective as those three questions were, there were also a few missed opportunities. Schieffer, arguably short on time, could also have asked McCain and Obama about gun control and the Second Amendment, which would highlight significant differences between the two candidates and speak directly to a huge swath of voters who have been largely ignored thus far: gun-owners, sportsmen and conservationists. McCain was interviewed recently in Field & Stream on his positions, but a pointed question about both his and Obama’s views on land-use issues, crime, and what could be a movement to legalize gun ownership in a number of new cities would have proven instructive.

Likewise, Schieffer could have asked McCain and Obama about affirmative action, welfare, sex offenders and capital punishment. Though they may seem like a la carte issues of considerably less importance than the economy right now, it may have revealed a good deal about both candidates’ views on the role of government in education, the work place and in crime legislation.

But the final question tnow ringing in the ears of voters is, now what? Obama can continue to plod along, hoping the economy stays front and center, but McCain needs a solid plan as the next three weeks unfold. There are no more debates, just stump speeches, rallies and interviews, all opportunities for McCain to shore up the base and convince undecideds to pull the lever for him and not Obama.

And he’s got some great ammunition. He needs to capitalize on the failures of Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, as well as Congress’s deservedly low approval ratings, by telling Americans in every way he knows how that four years under an Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate is a spine-chilling and nasty prospect. Where Obama’s had success equating McCain with Bush, McCain has to do a better job of equating Obama — the country’s most liberal Senator — with the hapless gang of liberals like Barney Frank and Charles Rangel, who even many Democrats are loathe to salute.

Obama’s most convincing guilt-by-association indictment is not his ties to Bill Ayers, Jeremiah Wright, and Tony Rezko, though they are an unseemly bunch in their own right. Rather, his most damaging allies are the elected officials he’ll rely on to inform and carry out his policies over the next four years, and it’s crucial that McCain persuade voters that a vote for Obama is also a vote for them.