John McCain was very lucky that he decided to show up for the first presidential debate in Oxford, Miss., Friday night. Because he gave one of his strongest debate performances ever.
While Barack Obama repeatedly tried to link McCain to the very unpopular George W. Bush, Bush's name will not be on the ballot in November and McCain's will.
And McCain not only found a central theme but hit on it repeatedly. Obama is inexperienced, na´ve, and just doesn't understand things, McCain said.
Sure, McCain is a pretty old guy for a presidential candidate, but he showed the old guy did not mind mixing it up. He stood behind a lectern for 90 minutes without a break you try that when you are 72 and he not only gave as good as he got, he seemed to relish it more.
At least twice after sharp attacks by McCain, Obama seemed to look to moderator Jim Lehrer for help, saying to Lehrer, "Let's move on."
True, the majority of the debate was fought on McCain's strongest ground: foreign affairs. And true, McCain's feet were not held to the fire as to why he urged the postponement of the debate in order to secure a financial bailout package in Washington, but then decided to show up without any such agreement in hand.
But it didn't seem to matter much. McCain just pounded away on his central argument: Obama just didn't "understand" how to deal with Pakistan; how dangerous it is to meet with foreign leaders without preconditions; how serious the Russian invasion of Georgia was; the price of failure in Iraq.
"He doesn't understand, he doesn't get it," McCain said of Obama, also saying, "There is a little bit of naivetÚ here."
It was as if McCain was paying Obama back for that moment in Obama's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention when Obama said McCain would not serve America well, "not because John McCain doesn't care; it's because John McCain doesn't get it."
But McCain seemed to get it Friday night. He certainly knew enough to try to turn his age into a plus and not a minus. "There are some advantages to experience, knowledge and judgment," McCain said.
Obama did not just stand there like a punching bag. He landed some blows of his own.
Obama said the financial crisis we are in today is a "final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Sen. McCain."
And when McCain delivered a scripted zinger "Sen. Obama has the most liberal voting record in the United States Senate; it's hard to reach across the aisle when you're that far to the left" Obama replied: "Mostly that's me opposing George Bush's wrongheaded policies."
Obama eventually realized that McCain had to be attacked not just for his ties to George Bush but also for his own record, and Obama accused McCain of saying the Iraq war "was going to be quick and easy" and that weapons of mass destruction would be found.
"You were wrong," Obama said.
But McCain attacked back. "I understand why Sen. Obama was surprised and saddened that the surge succeeded beyond his wildest expectations," he said.
McCain seemed to be enjoying himself. He smiled a lot, mostly when Obama was talking, though his smile was really more like a smirk.
Debate audiences are the largest audiences the candidates get far larger than their announcement or convention speeches and millions of Americans were seeing the two candidates up close and at length for the first time.
Both avoided their negative stereotypes: Obama did not seem aloof or condescending. McCain did not seem erratic or wild. You could imagine either one of them in the Oval Office, but only one is going to get there.
"I don't need any on-the-job training," McCain said. "I am ready to go at it right now."
He certainly seemed like it Friday night.