Within an hour of the conclusion of Wednesday night’s presidential debate, CNN’s political panel began sketching out John McCain’s political obituary, with senior analyst David Gergen drawing a round of laughter when he replied “beats the hell out of me” when asked by anchor Anderson Cooper what McCain could do next. Gergen bleakly suggested McCain had no chance and should end the race with his “honor intact” (which means no more attacks on Barack Obama):
I think you have to do everything you can to help save as much of the Senate and the House as you can for your party. I think you have to need -- you need to see if you can leave this with your honor intact. I think you need to go positive about what you do on the economy and get rid of this stuff about Bill Ayers and all this garbage that we've been going through now.
A few minutes later, national correspondent John King suggested it would be necessary -- and almost impossible -- for McCain to win a state that CNN has already coded “blue” on its electoral college map.
Let's hypothetically, Wolf, give them [the “toss-up states” of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Colorado and Nevada] all to John McCain just to show the steepness of the hill....McCain still loses the election. So what he has to do in 19 days is not only get up the huge hill of winning all those states which are big battleground states and expensive battleground states. He has to find something on this map that is blue, that is substantial and change it.
The dire analysis for McCain was premised on the notion that the Republican candidate failed to undermine Barack Obama’s support, a conclusion supported by CNN’s poll of 620 debate watchers which found 58% saying Obama performed the best compared to 31% who thought McCain won.
But four years ago, after the final Bush-Kerry debate, CNN’s poll found 53% saying John Kerry won the debate, compared to 39% picking George W. Bush. But Bush went on to beat Kerry on Election Day.
Of course the political environment is much different now than it was back then, and John McCain is clearly the underdog -- although Obama’s lead could be as little as 2 points, as measured by Gallup’s traditional “likely voter” measure, to as wide as 14 points, as claimed by CBS News and the New York Times.
Nevertheless, it still seems awfully premature for the CNN pundits to start popping champagne corks in celebration.
Here’s a transcript of some of CNN’s coverage, starting at about 11:30pm EDT on Wednesday:
ANDERSON COOPER: John King right before the break was talking about wanting to see the reaction on Independents to tonight's debate. Campbell Brown actually has some new polling in which it has Independents in them -- Campbell.
CAMPBELL BROWN: Yes, this is our breakdown and just to remind everybody the overall number in terms of how people, who they thought won the debate was 58 percent in favor of Obama, 31 percent for McCain. But this is the break down on where Democrats, Republicans and Independents stood.
Democrats no surprise here 88 percent thought that Obama won, 5 percent McCain. Independents 57 percent for Obama, 31 percent thought McCain won it. Republicans 18 percent Obama, 68 percent McCain. So pretty much where our overall number was it seems to be where Independents were breaking down.
COOPER: And John, if you would extrapolate that out to the Independents nationwide, what does that means for the race?
JOHN KING: If that's the case, and that opinion holds over the next 19 days, what it does for the race is it means Barack Obama is the next President of the United States. That 19 days is a long time, I think McCain was more effective tonight trying to do the spending and the connecting the dots on the economy and saying Barack Obama is liberal and you don't want him right now. But if that's how Independents saw it tonight, it shows you how you how steep the hill is for John McCain.
COOPER: We have more polling numbers?
BROWN: Yes, and it's on issues of the economy that they don't reflect that at least in the polling that we have. Who better handles the economy, Obama 59 percent, to McCain's 35 percent. Who would better handle the financial crisis, Obama 56 percent, McCain 35 percent. Who would better handle health care, big margin here 62 percent for Obama, 31 percent for McCain. Who would better handle taxes a little bit tighter but not that much, 56 percent for Obama 41 percent for McCain.
COOPER: So David Gergen, if you are John McCain tomorrow and you were in his campaign, what is the message? What do you go out and besides how I won on the debate and did I do great, how does the race change now for John McCain?
DAVID GERGEN: Beats the hell out of me.
COOPER: By the way, as a presidential advisor did you ever say that to a president?
GERGEN: He said that -- I think he will come to regret -- that he was going out and whip Obama's you know what. That was his pledge. He went out and threw everything he had at it tonight. It did not work. I think the message out of these polls is pretty darn clear.
And so after that, I don't know quite where you go. I do think you have to do two things. I think you have to do everything you can to help save as much of the Senate and the House as you can for your party.
I think you have to need -- you need to see if you can leave this with your honor intact. I think you need to go positive about what you do on the economy and get rid of this stuff about Bill Ayers and all this garbage that we've been going through now. Which maybe -- it is relevant in one sense, yes, it's formally relevant but it's not really relevant to the voters.
And they've sent a very clear message on that. And get back to a positive message to see if he can close the gap a little bit. If he can bring it down to three or four points he could still win. I think it's very hard now.
GLORIA BORGER: But I think it's hard because here is where money and organization comes in. And right now Barack Obama as John was saying earlier he's got the money. He's going to pour more into ads.
ALEX CASTELLANOS: I've seen in the commercials three to four to one.
BORGER: At least.
KING: And they are everywhere.
BORGER: And they're everywhere. And he's got the organization. The silver lining of going through that long primary season is that he's got the troops on the ground.
JOHN KING: Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win the White House. He never saw a map that looked anything like this especially this close to Election Day.
277 electoral votes; we now project Barack Obama would win if the election were today. 19 days is a long time; but that already puts him over the threshold. John McCain trailing back here.
Let's look at the steepness of the challenge. These are the six tossup states; the gold states. The red states are leaning or strong McCain depending on how dark they are; the blue states leaning or strong Obama depending how dark they are.
The gold states are the tossup states; all states huge electoral battlegrounds won by George W. Bush four years ago.
Barack Obama leads in several of these states right now. Let's hypothetically, Wolf, give them all to John McCain just to show the steepness of the hill. He wins Florida, 27 electoral votes, again Obama is ahead right there right now. North Carolina it's a very competitive race, let's say McCain wins it. Ohio, Obama is ahead in this huge battleground but let's give it hypothetically to McCain. I spent much of the week Missouri; it's a state that is a tossup right now; again for the sake of argument. And let's complete it by giving him Colorado where Obama in some polls is ahead and Nevada where I believe in all the polls, Obama's ahead.
McCain still loses the election. So what he has to do in 19 days is not only get up the huge hill of winning all those states which are big battleground states and expensive battleground states. He has to find something on this map that is blue, that is substantial and change it.
They have tried and tried and tried in Pennsylvania, Wolf; 21 electoral votes, if they could change that that would be a game changer. See? But they're down ten or 12 point there so we're going to leave that blue.
Where else do they go? We just leaned Virginia Democrat today; Obama leads by about 10 points. That would put the game back in play if McCain could make it a tossup state. You'd get there; he would still need to find something.
Barack Obama tomorrow will be in the state of New Hampshire. That is where John McCain revived himself. But that is only four electoral votes. But McCain is looking at this map saying where do I go?