Friday, September 26, 2008

Cheers, jeers _ but how many minds changed?

September 26, 2008

` At a hip downtown theater in liberal San Francisco, Sen. John McCain's assertion that "we've got to have offshore drilling" raised loud jeers. But in Sandy Springs, Ga., Republicans chortled at his laugh lines, especially when used as a pointed jab at Sen. Barack Obama.

Across the country, Americans gathered Friday for debate-watching parties - whether with beer and popcorn in northern California or cut-up fruit in suburban Atlanta - and cheered or jeered their candidates at the first presidential debate of the 2008 campaign.

The debate, televised from the University of Mississippi, came with only five weeks to go before the Nov. 4 election, and reactions showed many voters simply confirmed their preferences as they watched.

Although the agreed debate topic was foreign policy, many viewers were listening for clues about how each candidate would deal with the current economic crisis and the slump the next president will certainly inherit.

In the Denver suburb of Wheat Ridge, Colo., financial services worker Evelyn Gifford, a Republican, watched the debate nestled on the couch with her husband and their dog. She was concerned that neither candidate got to the core of her questions about the economy.

"My bank crashed today, I'm a WAMU (Washington Mutual) customer," said Gifford, 43, a business analyst with a financial services and insurance company. "Eight years ago my job was hyper, but with the financial situation the way it is, we're going to have layoffs. I'm scared."

Predictably, McCain's framework for addressing the country's teetering economy did not convince most of the 280 at the San Francisco theater.

"He's fumbling," said Jenn Lucien, a 31-year-old real estate agent there. "McCain will stick with the Republican status quo, and nothing he's said has changed my mind about that."

h Obama's vow that no taxpayer money going to bail out Wall Street would end up in CEOs' pockets got loud applause, and both candidates' calls for accountability were met with calls of "fire Bush."

"He's clear, he's communicating succinctly. He's empathizing, but he's not losing his cool, he's not weak," said Peter Coats, 29, a civil engineer, said of Obama, whose lapel buttons decorated shirts throughout the room.

The Sandy Springs debate party, sponsored by the local GOP, brought 70 Republicans to a stripmall storefront, where at times the audible scoffing at Obama was shushed so listeners wouldn't miss what was being said next.

Kelli May, 26, a special-needs teacher from Milton, Ga., watched the debate wearing a button that said "Maverick Barracuda 2008" and clapped loudly for McCain.

"He's going to take care of our country from a national security standpoint," she said, explaining that his experience "hands down" makes him more qualified to be president than Obama. May, a self-described "military brat," said McCain's military background appeals to her, because "in the military they take care of their people."

Friday's debate made the gap between the two candidates apparent, said Shawn Hanley, chairman of the Fulton County Republican Party in Georgia.

"It was really a difference between experience and non-experience. It was a difference between being presidential and someone who's really just searching for a title," Hanley said.

Obama looked confused and flustered, and his facial expressions made him look lost and unsure; McCain never stuttered or stammered, he said.

But some Republicans, like Gifford in Colorado, faulted McCain for not addressing Obama by first name or looking at him when he talked. That made him seem like he was stiff, "pontificating," she said.

Debate moderator Jim Lehrer, news anchor for Public Broadcasting Service, was expected to keep McCain, 72, and Obama, 47, engaged on foreign affairs and national security. But this first of three planned presidential debates took place in a moment of deep economic uncertainty and mistrust of the current administration.

To Susan McClelland of New Albany, Miss., that means she wants "a fresh approach that is not tainted with the way things has been done in Washington." She was lounging in lawn chairs and blankets on the University of Mississippi campus where the debate took place with her 13-year-old daughter Kellie and her 14-year-old cousin Julie Canoy.

Young and old tuned in to the debate, the latest chapter in an election cycle that has drawn intense public interest. More than 40 million viewers watched the nomination acceptances by Obama, McCain and GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and some predicted Friday's debate could break viewership records.

In Willmar, Minn., 86-year-old Cy Effertz watched from Sunrise Village Assisted Living center and described herself as an independent who votes for "the man rather than the party."

Although Effertz has leaned Republican in the past, this debate led her to support Obama - for now.

His support for tax relief aimed at the middle class won her over, she said.

"I felt like McCain is more for the big shots and Obama is more for the working class. That I like very well," Effertz said.

But Effertz is planning to watch additional debates - and could change her mind, she warned.

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