Liveblogging the first Presidential Debate

4.46am | Tomorrow’s headline – Given how the instant polling seems to be going, will the media be ready to crown Obama the winner tomorrow morning? More interesting, I think, is the question of whether this debate will matter in a few days time. The economic crisis is bound to dominate news cycles in the meantime and a foreign policy debate with no standout winner, and no major ‘moments,’ will easily fade into the background. Or does this just mean that the economy half of the debate (which favoured Obama, reviews seem to agree) will get more press?

As i wrote earlier this evening, pre-debate expectations were that McCain needed to dominate, he needed a ‘gamechanger.’ Tonight he didn’t get that, and that means one of the few remaining opportunities for this has slipped him by. We’ll see how this is spun in the next few days, but I have a feeling Democrats will be happier with tonight’s outcome.

4.28am | Telephone polls – Obama won in CNN’s instant telehone poll for all three questions (who did better, who do you trust on Iraq, who do you trust on the economy). The numbers were c.51-38/52-47/51-38 respectively.

As the pundits are pointing out, this will help the spin for Obama significantly as many people make up their opinion from the reaction of others. And another point – will foreign policy be raised again in the next month?

4.13am | Kissinger – Dr Kissinger has issued a statement saying his view is compatible with McCain’s and that he advocates talks at the Secretary of State, not the Presidential, level. Looks like Obama is going to lost the post-debate spin on this one.

4.09am | Results – Fivethirtyeight reports: “Independents in the MediaCurves focus group gave the debate to Obama 61-39. They also think he won every individual segment. Republicans gave the debate to McCain 90-10, Democrats to Obama 93-7.”

4.03am | Veep debate – Biden is already playing expectations on CNN, “I have great respect for the debating skills of Governor Palin.” It’s next Thursday and, based on the 3 interviews she’s done so far, it might be car-crash tv.

3.59am | A thought – Why is McCain pushing judgement, experience, and ‘ready on day one’ so hard when this exact argument failed for Hillary Clinton in the primaries? Has he abandoned his ‘the right change’ slogan?

3.49am | The pundits weigh in – Succinct take from a CNN pundit: McCain wanted to paint Obama as a risky choice, Obama wanted to paint McCain as the past vs. the future.  There weren’t any moments Obama really came across as risky, but there were moments McCain seemed old (Eisenhower reference anyone?).

There’s a lot of talk about Obama’s “John is right” lines. Bipartisan or foolish?

3.39am | A draw? – It started off quite slowly. McCain got going in the second half though, reeling off facts and foreign policy names in an authoritative fashion. Obama seemed more practised. He was crisp, concise and knowledgeable. He generally brought points back to key themes and didn’t give in on any issue.

Image-wise McCain attempted repeatedly to emphasise Obama’s youth and relative inexperience, saying the Democrat didn’t understand a number of issues, and didn’t have the experience to lead. Obama, I thought, came across as presidential. He was very poised and directly addressed McCain in a way that his opponent didn’t do.

Of course, McCain had more at stake so will Democrats be happier with a draw? 

A quick note – McCain already has a YouTube ad with clips of Obama saying “I agree with John” from tonight’s debate. Quick work at McCain HQ there.

3.23am | Fear mongering – A bizarre question in some respects: what is the likelihood of another 9/11 attack? McCain mentions that he worked across the aisle and called for a 9/11 commission even though the administration opposed it. He mentions never using torture again, although doesn’t take the opportunity to mention his POW past.

Obama talks about the risk of a suitcase bomb and why legislation addressing nuclear proliferation is so important. He wants to – and he’s said this line a lot on the stump – “restore our moral standing in the world.”

McCain brings it all back around to Iraq, Obama “still doesn’t get it.” Defeat in Iraq would bring about disaster in the region and empower al-Qaeda. He’s seeking to make this the issue voters judge them on.

Obama points out that Bush and McCain have spent 8 years solely focused on Iraq and in the meantime al-Qaeda has experienced a resurgence, Bin Laden hasn’t been caught, and the US is borrowing billions from China. Obama says: “no-one is talking about losing this law; the next President has to have a broader vision.”

McCain counters with his experience and judgement and says Obama simply isn’t ready. Now, here’s Obama’s closing arguement. He returns to his biography, specifically his Kenyan origins. And finally, last lines: McCain mentions his return from prison and his work on bipartisan veterans legislation “I know how to heal the wounds of war, I know how to deal with our adversaries, and I know how to deal with our friends.” Obama doesn’t get another line. That’s all folks.

3.15am | Russia – Obama: “a resurgent Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region.” But he notes “we can’t have a return to a Cold War mentality.” He uses the opportunity to bring up his bipartisan nuclear proliferation legislation.

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McCain: “again a bit of naivety there.” He says Obama doesn’t realise that Russia committed serious aggression. A lot of name dropping follows of the other countries and leaders in the regions. Obama says they largely agree but points out he called the Georgian invasion illegal and unacceptable. We move on to nuclear waste and energy

3.03am | Iran – McCain: “If Iran acquires nuclear weapons it is an existential threat to Israel and the other countries in the region.” He calls for co-operation with the other democracies of the world. Obama also wouldn’t tolerate a nuclear Iran but points out that the Iraq war is responsible for Iran’s new role in the region. Senator Obama emphasises his willingness to talk with rogue leaders. McCain stumbles on the word ‘Ahmadinejad’ and aggressively tries to repronounce it correctly before catching himself. To prove he can do names he then reels off a list of Soviet names from the Reagan-era.

Obama points out that one of McCain’s advisers – Nobel prize-winning Dr Henry Kissinger – agrees that the US should sit down with Iran without preconditions. He points out the nuclear advances made by North Korea when the US disengaged. He’s clearly well-prepped, bringing up McCain’s ‘I won’t sit down with Spain’ gaffe. McCain counters by bring up Obama’s one-day phony presidential seal, saying: “I don’t even have my own seal yet.” Some more forceful language too, Obama’s plan here “isn’t just naive, it’s dangerous.” Is Obama trying to goad an angry reaction from McCain’s notorious temper here? It all gets a bit heated but McCain comes off better.

2.50am | Afghanistan – Do we need a surge there? Obama says yes to more troops, as soon as possible. He points out that Iraq has four times as many troops. He calls it an “(emphasised) strategic mistake” – subtext: yes I do know the difference between tactics and strategy. McCain talks about Pakistan, saying he wouldn’t threaten the country. He talks about his visits to Afghanistan and the need for specific tactics. Oh, and he mentions Petraeus for maybe the fiftieth time.

More harsh blows too – Obama mentions some past McCain gaffes, including that “bomb, bomb, bomb. Bomb, bomb Iran” song. McCain counters with a vote from 1983 against sending marines to Lebanon, his support for the first Gulf War, the operation in Bosnia, the operation in Kosovo.” It’s a strong line, playing up his experience and leadership credentials, and it’s delivered with real gravitas. Moment numer two perhaps?

A bit of a stumble from Obama who counters a McCain story about the bracelet of an Iraq war casualty by saying he has a bracelet of his own. Unfortunately, he then has to very obviously look down at his notes for the name.

2.37am | Lessons of Iraq – McCain is straight in there with the surge. He says he realised this was required in 2003, praised Petraeus, and says “our troops will come home in victory.” Unsurprisingly, CNN’s ‘audience reaction’ shows the biggest divide so far between Republicans and Democrats with Independents right in the middle.

Predictably, Obama turns this into a question of whether the war was a good idea in the first place. He says he stood up on this 6 years ago and thought it would be a distraction from Afghanistan. This response is polling better across the board on the CNN ticker and is actually less polarising between party identity. Encouragingly for Democrats, the Independents are really liking this response.

McCain says the next President won’t have to decide whether or not to go into Iraq and pushes Obama’s opposition to the surge. Obama counters with a namecheck for Joe Biden and some tough, forceful language: “John, you like to pretend that the war began in 2007. You said it would be easy – you were wrong. You said we’d be greated as liberators – you were wrong.” That could well be our first big moment here.

This is getting feisty, McCain says Obama doesn’t know the difference between a strategy and a tactic but he’ll tell him. Then he breaks out a very patriotic anecdote – he says he was in Iraq on July 4 at a re-enlistment ceremony and the soldiers asked for them to “not lose.”

2.25am | Sacrifices – What’s the cost of the financial crisis to your plans in office? Unsurprisingly, neither wants to give specifics that will be cut but are happy to list what they will do.

McCain mentions a spending freeze, Obama calls it using a hatchet when you need a scalpel. He calls for savings in Iraq, McCain bring up nuclear power and climate change. McCain says he is proud of the work he has done on climate change “with Senator Clinton.”

McCain has now twice said “he has not been elected Miss Congeniality in the Senate” seeking to distance himself from Bush. He calls himself a maverick and says his partner is one too (though he doesn’t actually mention Palin’s name).

2.11am | Leadership – Lehrer asks for the differences between how the two candidates would lead America out of the crisis. McCain blames earmarking, saying he’s got a pen – though he notes, and he actually says “this pen is kinda old” – and will veto any legislation with pork. McCain says Obama has got nearly $1m a day since he’s been in the Senate ($18m dollars).

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McCain keeps mentioning the corrupting power of earmarks which maybe isn’t the best plan when Ted Stevens, the Senator from Alaska is a prime example, and has close ties with Governor Palin.

That said, McCain is pushing hard here and Obama hasn’t come out with a great response yet. Obama says McCain wants to tax health benefits and he says businesses don’t suffer from high rates of business tax because of loopholes.

2.02am | Financial recovery plan – There’s no messing around, question one asks the candidates to define their position on the financial recovery plan. Obama’s first line (after thanking Ole Miss for the debate) is that he “can’t think of a more important time” to be holding a debate – a clear dig at McCain’s flight to Washington.

Obama essentially repeats the 5 points (oversight, possibility of taxpayers making money etc.) that he appended to the joint statement released a couple of days ago. And there’s your first drink: Obama links the crisis to the failings of 8 years of Bush, supported by McCain.

McCain seeks to take credit for the bipartisan approach to attempts to sort out the financial crisis. Both candidates have name-checked “main street” and “Wall Street.” Lehrer asks outright for the candidates positions but Obama notes that they haven’t seen the language yet. He instead talks about how this crisis came about; no prizes for guessing who he blames.

McCain says he also warned about this crisis but turns to an anecdote about Eisenhower before Normandy to call for accountability, standing by his call for the SEC Chariman to be fired. McCain does say he will vote for the package.

There’s a pretty sober tone through most of the first 9-minute segment as the moderator attempts to get the two candidates to talk directly to each other.

2.00am | Seconds away – CNN has the feed from the stage where the set seems to be the exact same one they used in the West Wing live episode.

1.30am | Intro – Right, the debate itself gets underway at 2am (it’s live on BBC News and CNN.com for those wanting the full audiovisual experience) but it the meantime there’s just about time for a preshow huddle.

The mainstream media seems to have largely agreed that McCain is generally too ‘hot’ in debates, and Obama is too ‘cold’ and that maybe they’re going to adopt one another’s characteristic this evening. Standard strategy for the front runner is simply not to slip up so expect a relatively conservative performance from Obama, especially as he requested this debate to be first rather than the economy one because his campaign wanted to hold the best one till last.

McCain on the other hand has to have a big night. His suspension stunt has backfired, with Democrats saying that they had a deal all but agreed upon until he arrived, and he’s now trailing in the latest polls. With just over a month till the election he needs to force a slip up from Obama, who decisively win the debates to reclaim the initiative. In short, he’s looking for a gamechanger.

That’s the conventional wisdom at least, here’s a more exciting version – I call it the:

“First Presidential Debate Drinking Game” (catchy, huh?) though obviously Cherwell is not condoning drinking alcohol here – I’ll be drinking Ribena myself.

The Rules

McCain mentions his time as a POW – 1 finger

Obama mentions Bush when talking about McCain – 1 finger

McCain says “my friends” – 1 finger

Obama says “look folks” – 1 finger

McCain says Obama does not have enough experienced – 1 finger

Obama mentions that he was against the war in Iraq “from the start” – 1 finger

McCain mentions that the surge was his idea – 1 finger

McCain tries to get Obama to admit the surge worked – 2 fingers

Obama admits it – 3 fingers, bonus biscuit

Either candidate mentions Palin – 3 fingers

McCain makes an age joke, Reagan style – 4 fingers

EDIT: Turns out the Huffington Post has a more elaborate (and much better) drinking game for the debate.

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And finally, here are some links for your delectation:

NBC’s Tom Brokaw looks at the first ever debate (JFK v. Nixon, 1960).

23/6 have a maybe not 100% accurate version of McCain’s debate prep.

The Washington Post has a bizarre story about an early “McCain won the debate” ad.

Nate Silver over at Cherwell‘s favourite 538.com suggests that the average debate bump for the winner is 2 points and McCain is looking to double down.

5.25pm – It’s been a 24-hour will-he-won’t-he game but McCain has now confirmed that he will be attending tonight’s debate. The topic is ostensibly foreign policy but there will inevitably be questions addressing the current economic crisis too. Trailing in the polls McCain needs a big night to reclaim the lead and for those who say debates don’t matter, just ask Richard Nixon in 1960, or Jimmy Carter in 1980. The first of three Presidential Debates is a potential gamechanger.

Join me from 2am for live commentary on the debate itself or check in from around 1am for a pre-game guide and a roundup of the current state of play.