OXFORD, Miss. - Each presidential campaign roared out of here yesterday morning in a pitched fight to make the case that the other candidate had lost the first presidential debate of the general election.
At the crack of dawn, the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama released a new advertisement criticizing Sen. John McCain for failing to utter the words "middle class" in the 90-minute debate, held Friday at the University of Mississippi here. By then, McCain had already produced and released an Internet video citing several instances in which Obama had said he agreed with his rival's positions.
The activity was part of a battle to shape public perceptions in the closing weeks of a razor-tight race. Both campaigns viewed the debates as a potential turning point, an opportunity for one side to finally break through in a race in which neither man has been able to sustain a statistically significant lead in polls.
Even as they sought to mold perceptions from the previous night, the campaigns were preparing for the next two debates, one on Thursday between Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware and Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, and the other between McCain and Obama in a town-hall setting on Oct. 8.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call yesterday morning, Obama's campaign manager, David Plouffe, called Palin "a gifted debater." Noting McCain's preference for town-hall formats, and using the transparent, expectations-setting hyperbole common from both campaigns, Plouffe said he would be "thrilled" if "we can just escape relatively unscathed."
The positioning was in keeping with what is now a quadrennial rite in which the campaigns go full bore to convince the news media, and ultimately the public, that their candidate won. This often involves highlighting some supposedly fatal mistake by their opponent - the sighs of Al Gore at a 2000 debate; the first President George Bush's peek at his wristwatch while debating Bill Clinton in 1992.
In this case, McCain's campaign seized on a somewhat stammering reference Obama made to a bracelet he received from the parents of a soldier killed in Iraq after McCain spoke about one bequeathed to him. Obama's campaign sought to portray McCain as angry.
But the general sense was that the debate had not changed the landscape of the overall campaign. An anchorman on the Fox News Channel went so far as to tell a guest, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, "They could have used you on the debate last night." Huckabee had won high marks for his quips in the Republican primary debates.
Both campaigns emerged yesterday morning with evidence of their successes, including competing declarations of victory from various commentators and editorial boards. Obama appeared to have an edge in the various snap polls taken the night of the debate.
Obama's aides asserted that he had passed the threshold test of convincing a huge national audience that he could be commander in chief, and that he had exceeded expectations on delivering his economic message to struggling Americans. McCain's campaign argued that Obama had failed to allay voters' concerns about his qualifications, expressing pride in the frequency with which McCain had told Obama he did not "understand" various international matters.
Each side had substantive goals for the debate.
For Obama, a 46-year-old Democrat, it was to show he had the stature to serve as commander in chief and, if possible, present himself as the proper steward for the turbulent economy. For McCain, a 72-year-old Republican, it was to move past a topsy-turvy week for both the economy and his campaign and establish his pre-eminence on national security while showing vitality and raising doubts about Obama.
But debates are often won or lost on superficialities. And each campaign was unapologetic in seeking to exploit to maximum effect any gaffe or potentially grating personality ticks of the opponent.
In the era of "live blogging" and real-time fact-checking, the campaigns began their fight for perceptions minute by minute on Friday night, devising sophisticated plans to tackle the sprawling new media environment.