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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ayers Distraction Not Likely to Sway Final Debate

There may well be some discussion about Senator Obama’s relationship with former domestic terrorist William Ayers in tonight’s presidential debate. McCain has said as much, although he would be smart not to bring it up, contrary to the sage advice of Rudy Giuliani, whose political judgment earned him a poor showing in the primary season early on. Better for McCain if debate moderator Bob Schieffer brings it up, if it must come up at all.
No doubt, McCain’s prep team is hard at work on creating an Ayers zinger or a ‘Have you stopped beating your wife?’ type question for Obama. Senator Obama’s prep team is undoubtedly working on possible responses. But it shouldn’t be too hard. Their candidate has handled the Ayers distraction exceptionally well thus far, pointing out that he was eight years old when Ayers committed his crimes and quickly adding that the Ayers fuss is just another irrelevant distraction to get voters off the economy, health care Iraq and other issues that actually affect their lives.
I agree with TNR‘s Christopher Orr that it’s hard to envision a scenario in which McCain gets much leverage out of talking about Ayers. It’s already been discussed ad nauseum, and the shrinking pool of swing voters left — at least the thoughtful ones — could not be blamed for going to the bathroom during that part of the debate. If McCain goes on too long about it, he will look trifling, stuck in the past and even more desperate.
McCain might even pass on it altogether, on the theory that he will get some respect from fence-sitters for sticking to the important issues and getting back on the high road. Recent polls have shown that his attacks on Obama have been counter-productive. Letting the ads do the dirty work might be his preferred strategy going forward. It’s likely that the sort of voters who think Ayers is still relevant are already supporting McCain anyway.
Schieffer may also pass on asking an Ayers-related question. He has expressed an eagerness to make this debate the most substantial one yet held, with more detail on policy. That would leave very little time for distractions, especially given the complexity of issues like the economy, Iraq and health care, which voters care more about. The more interesting question is whether Schieffer will be even-handed enough, if Ayers comes up, to ask McCain to account for his close relationship with G. Gordon Liddy, who has reportedly urged political violence. McCain is said to have received funds raised by Liddy on several occasions and he has complimented Liddy lavishly.
The Ayers “issue” is most likely a wash-out, helping and hurting both candidates in equal measure. Neither candidate will gain or lose much because of it. But the public will be a big winner if the time is more productively spent exploring solutions to improving health care, getting out of Iraq, restoring economic stability and creating prosperity for all citizens.
My one unsolicited bit of advice for Obama in tonight’s debate: I’ve noticed that he tends to tilt his head at a 45 degree angle in sit-down interviews, like Meet the Press. Tonight is also a sit-down format, so maybe make an effort to keep his head more vertical to help convey confidence.

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