An underwhelming first act


John McCain must have thought he was in one of those acid-tongued Edward Albee plays, while his presidential rival Barack Obama came out like a character in a warmhearted A.R. Gurney production.

Throughout the 90-minute set-to Friday in front of a hushed house seating 800 political theatergoers, the Republican candidate behaved as though he were in a one-man show — even his body language betraying a determination not to acknowledge his opponent's presence. The 72-year-old Republican senator from Arizona mainly addressed moderator Jim Lehrer straight-on, with rarely a sideways glance at the presence behind the other podium. The 47-year-old Democratic hopeful from Illinois came onstage as though he were in a two-hander, often turning toward his older antagonist and addressing him directly.

Because both playwrights deservedly have their fans, as the two major candidates boast their core bases, there were plenty of memorable, well-constructed moments. It's just that audiences today, bombarded daily by media assaults, are more attuned to Albee-like jousts, rather than gentlemanly repartee. They want drama. Thus, too much of the televised debate at the Gertrude C. Ford Center on the University of Mississippi campus fell, well, flat.

Despite what both campaigns' officially designated spinmeisters argued backstage after the debate, neither candidate "won" the confrontation, just as no actor "wins" a stage performance. In both situations, though, presence and projection are crucial — and though arguably too well-rehearsed, both candidates acquitted themselves decently enough.

Next up on the boards: The vice-presidential contenders, the seasoned Joseph Biden and the starlet Sarah Palin, go at it Thursday. No doubt their own readings of this Friday-night play will be crucial for how they strut their stuff onstage. One thing they might want to remember: Grab the audience's attention early, and don't let up.

To wit: It was a perfunctory first act Friday, during which neither major presidential candidate fully engaged on what should have been a meaty dialogue about the economic crisis besetting the nation. Their canned comments about taxes and spending took the air out of the room.

Despite repeated questions from Lehrer as to what would have to be jettisoned from their spending proposals to fund a bailout, the candidates sidestepped and pussyfooted. High drama, it was not.

Still, there were highlights and occasional fireworks when the two fleetingly upstaged each other or joined pointedly in verbal combat.

Occasionally testy, even faintly condescending, McCain came into his own discussing foreign policy, particularly the quagmire in Iraq.

"There are some advantages to experience and knowledge and judgment," he said, a line some interpreted as smug and others as self-deprecating.

Over and over, McCain proclaimed Obama was not right, driving home McCain's contention that his rival is "inexperienced" or "naive."

Conjuring a picture of what he contends an open dialogue with rogues would amount to, McCain warmed to his subject: "So let me get this right: We sit down with (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad, and he says, 'We're going to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,' and we say, 'No you're not'?"

"Oh, please," McCain capped his peroration with, in a tone sneeringly dismissive of his rival's view that sitting down with enemies like the Iranian strongman would do anything other than give credence to those enemies' anti-American stances.

Obama occasionally fidgeted under the lights but managed to keep his composure as his rival rattled off names and places the first-term senator has not visited, but which McCain kept reminding the audience are his domain. A couple of times, Obama could not contain himself and quietly talked over McCain's interpretation of his rival's positions.

When he commanded the floor, Obama went for a different tone, more inclusive — "John" this, and "John" that (McCain not once uttered "Barack") — several times admitting McCain was right about this or that before elaborating or modifying a position.

Obama's best soliloquy came when he returned to the central theme of his campaign, that electing McCain would be tantamount to "four more years of the failed policies of George W. Bush." Rising to rhetorical crescendo, Obama noted that the Republican candidate has voted with or supported the president when war was authorized and during crucial periods thereafter.

"You were wrong" on Iraq, Obama argued thrice in succession. "John, you like to pretend the war began in 2007," referring to the surge in U.S. troops sent there.

Still, such heated exchanges were only intermittent pleasures as the first of three debates, while occasionally getting at substance, generally lacked sizzle.

National ratings reflected the ho-hum reaction of the TV viewing audience, and even the electricity on the great lawn of the Ole Miss campus, where 4,000 gathered to watch on two big screens, seemed to flicker as the show unspooled.

"We came here because we know it's history in the making — for our school, for Mississippi and for the race to the White House — but we also wanted a little more drama and bite," a third-year student said as the debate wound down. "I didn't feel that they got into it enough."

It's also true that so much suspense built up during the days and hours before the faceoff — McCain suspended his campaign to focus on the Bush administration's bailout proposal in Washington, then changed his mind only at about 11 a.m. CDT on Friday — that the encounter was bound to be a letdown.

Not that the first presidential debate to take place in Mississippi made for a dull day. The campus came alive Friday morning as speakers took the stage in the Grove, national news crews set up shop to do interviews, musicians performed to rock the vote, placards got waved, buttons got pinned on, causes got espoused, and local bigwigs and university officials got glad-handed.

It was lost on no one that the event not only was about the impression the presidential candidates had come to make, but also about the new image Mississippi wishes to project onto the national stage.

Forty-six years after James Meredith caused a riot when he attempted to enroll as the first black student at Ole Miss, the school's student body comprises 20% ethnic minorities. A statue of Meredith stands outside the oldest building on campus, the Lyceum, where wounded Confederate soldiers were hospitalized nearly 150 years ago.

"What we are is not what we were," university chancellor Robert Khayat said during an on-camera interview.

It also could be a useful line one or the other major candidate appropriates and makes his own during one of the remaining debates.