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No Solid Winner or Loser in First Presidential Debate

And the winner was ....

No one. No one won, which also means no one lost.

Whichever side you’re on, you can find a way, without much trouble even, to claim victory in Friday night’s Presidential debate.

If you’re for Obama, you can point to his strong performance in the first half hour of the debate, on economic issues, and argue that the economy is the most important issue in this election, and the first half hour counts for the most (especially if it’s a little boring, which this one was, boring enough to make people start thinking about what’s in the refrigerator and who they needed to call and the DVD they haven’t watched yet). If you’re for Obama, you say he sounded assured and looked right into the camera and held his own, which is enough for the guy that the other side is trying to portray as not being ready for the Presidency.

On the other hand, if you’re for McCain, you can point to his strong performance in the last hour of the debate, his mastery of foreign policy, his repeated references to the leaders he knew and the places he’d been, and argue that in a dangerous world, competence on foreign policy and national security is a threshold test. If you’re for McCain, you say he seemed vigorous and engaged, which is to say, not old; that he drove home his message that Obama just didn’t know and didn’t understand the things a President needs to know and understand, and that McCain scored with the point that he wouldn’t need on-the-job training.

This much is almost certain: if you were for Obama going in, you still are; if you were for McCain going in, you still are. This was one of those debates that gave everyone who is already decided plenty of reasons to feel that they decided right.

And if you were undecided Friday afternoon, you probably still are today.

Neither candidate made a significant mistake, although some of my liberal friends struggled mightily to suggest otherwise. In the immediate aftermath of the debate, the Huffington Post was alive, like Julie Andrews’ hills, with the sound of wishful cries that McCain had erred in describing Pakistan as a "failed state." But calling Pakistan a "failed state" is not like calling Poland a "free country" when it wasn’t. This was not a big moment, and the struggle to turn it into one was a failed effort, that soon gave way to renewed emphasis on more significant issues, like the differences between the two candidates on Iraq, not to mention the business about who looked right into the camera (Obama) and who looked down at the moderator (McCain).

So where does this leave the Presidential race?

It may be trending in Obama’s direction, if things go back to the way they were last Wednesday, before McCain suspended his efforts and went to Washington, and then Obama joined him there, and the two of them joined the President in the White House, and the bickering began between Democrats and Republicans about whether McCain was helping or hurting by his presence there. Interestingly, no one suggested that Obama’s presence made a difference one way or the other. Whether that helps or hurts him remains to be seen.

Or it may be that McCain has stopped the slide, by going back to Washington and proving his muscle, by demonstrating that he was putting country first (since being associated with the bailout of Wall Street is such a political loser), or just by changing the subject.

Or—and this is my guess—it just may be pretty much frozen, as races tend to get during the debate window, as the two sides settle in and the folks in the middle wait to see if something is going to happen.

To which the answer is, very clearly, not yet. Stay tuned. Boring debates make for more exciting elections. And vice versa.


Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.

Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.

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