My husband and I had the opportunity to attend tonight's debate in person. We sat in the fourth row, and had a bird's eye view of the candidates and much else.
All the candidates (especially Romney and McCain) looked terribly tired (not to mention smaller and thinner than they do on television, of course). My theory is that fatigue brings out people's faults.
Governor Romney came off as less forceful than, perhaps, his supporters would have liked to see him. But how much worse was Senator McCain. I am no McCain fan, as readers know, but no doubt like so many other Republicans, I was looking for any inkling of a reason that I could feel "less bad" about him winning the nomination, if that happens. I got none. He came across (in the words of a '70's song) as "meaner than a junkyard dog."
His persistance in insisting that Romney called for a timetable in Iraq -- when even the New York Times has called it untrue -- was remarkable, and dishonest. Worse yet was his continued digs at Romney's wealth. Whether he was telling Romney that he could "spend all his money" on attack ads, contrasting his service "for patriotism" with Romney's "for profit," or even making the observation that people had lost their jobs during Romney's career as a businessman, McCain came off as the kind of class warrior that belongs in the Democrat Party, not the Republican.
What's worrisome about the attacks is that they were as inexplicable as they were gratuitous. McCain is the clear frontrunner, and his obvious mission should have been to reach out to all Republicans and certainly not to alienate any. He failed so miserably that one has to wonder whether he can help himself. What's more, given his obvious bitterness and resentment of Romney's attack ads -- which, as Chris Wallace said on Fox News last night, have been completely issues oriented -- is he at all prepared for what Hillary will do to him? It won't be pretty. And if he gets into a debate with Senator Clinton and behaves as badly as he did tonight, she'll have the makings of another Rick Lazio moment
Finally, two perceptions. First, John McCain is going to have a problem with female voters. This was the first debate of this year that I have watched in a crowd. Judging from their facial expressions (and what I overheard during the break and even in whispers during the debate), women seem clearly both to favor Mitt Romney and dislike John McCain. If that's true, it's going to create a gender gap that may well help Hillary Clinton if she's the nominee.
Second -- and this is my perception only, based on fleeting observation
-- I'm not impressed with John McCain's behavior on a personal level. Our seats were near the staircase down which the candidates departed with their entourages after the debate. John and Cindy McCain went down with an advisor or two and Lindsay Graham. McCain went first, then Mrs. McCain. When the senator got to the landing, he stopped and turned around -- I thought to wait for Mrs. McCain. Instead, she passed by him with no interaction between them whatsoever; he was, apparently, waiting for Senator Graham. It was an odd moment.
Later, we ran into the Senator and his entourage in a stairwell. Again, he was walking ahead of Mrs. McCain up the stairs, with a staffer or two in between. At one point, he said, "Getting a nosebleed, Cindy?" in a tone that, as a wife, I would not have appreciated.
The Romneys do get along, however. During the break in the debate when McCain huddled with two males (presumably advisors), Governor Romney went straight to his wife. From their body language, it seemed obvious to me that she was advising him, and he was listening attentively. At the debate's conclusion, they went down the stairs a bit later than the McCains, he first, she following. Like Senator McCain, he paused at the landing and turned around. Unlike Senator McCain, he was waiting for his wife, and they went down the second flight of stairs together.
Again, these are just judgments based on a few seconds of observation. I came away with the distinct feeling that McCain is not a particularly nice guy, and that Romney's fault is that he's almost too nice in a somewhat patrician way, quite reminiscent of George H.W. Bush.
My prediction: If McCain wins the nomination, get ready to hear a lot about two new topics -- first, "temperament" and second, "the gender gap."