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Commentary: Barack Obama, icy cool under fire

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: McCain tried to get under Obama's skin with attacks
  • Obama remained cool and wound up ending strongly in the debate, he says
  • Navarrette says Ayers attacks backfired even though issue is legitimate
  • America may need the cool-headedness of Barack Obama, he says
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here.

Ruben Navarrette asks whether Obama's cool, calm demeanor will be a plus in negotiating with world leaders.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Make no mistake, Barack Obama is one cool customer. Now, after the last debate, it seems all but certain that the Iceman cometh to the White House.

Radio talk show hosts and rank-and-file Republicans spent the last few weeks pleading with John McCain to take the gloves off and take the fight to Obama. How's that working out, folks?

In this week's match-up, Obama snatched the gloves out of McCain's hands and slapped him silly with them. I suppose the hope was that Obama would get rattled and make a mistake. But Obama doesn't get rattled or make many mistakes.

I still have no idea what type of president Obama would make. But he's an extraordinary politician. In fact, he may even be better than Bill Clinton who, while he had the IQ and EQ, also had the burden of a legendary red-hot temper.

Obviously, it takes a lot to get under Obama's skin. McCain sure tried. Maybe this is the guy we want negotiating with world leaders. Maybe after eight years of George W. Bush stubbornness, on the heels of eight years of Clinton emotiveness, we need to send out for ice.

In a CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 58 percent of those who watched the debate said Obama did the better job and 31 percent said that about McCain. That makes three skins for Obama. In earlier polls, 54 percent of those who watched thought Obama won the second debate, and 51 percent thought he won the first one.

This week, McCain turned in his best performance of the debates, and the first 30 minutes -- with McCain bringing up Obama's problematic encounter with the now famous Joe the Plumber; and the quip about how he isn't Bush and how Obama should have run four years ago -- were near flawless for the Republican. Are you Joe the Plumber? Get out your plunger and share your thoughts

McCain put Obama on the defensive, and it showed. If McCain had been that aggressive throughout the first two debates -- firm but not necessary unlikable -- we might be looking at a different race right now.

But, over the next hour, Obama regained his stride and eventually dominated the exchange. And, in the end, with his sarcastic crack about school vouchers -- "Because there's not enough vouchers; therefore, we shouldn't do it, even though it's working. I got it." -- McCain was profoundly unlikable.

So said the polls. In the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 70 percent of debate watchers found Obama more likable. Only 22 percent said that about McCain.

McCain's supporters wanted him to bring up some of the allegedly shady characters from Obama's circle of acquaintances that give some Americans pause and lead them to question the Democrat's values. There are good reasons to have that conversation, and bad ones.

A friend and fellow journalist told me Obama's Chicago posse was important because it formed "the political womb where the fetal Obama grew into a politician. ... That tells us who he is and what either he believes himself or is at least willing to tolerate as president."

Frankly, that argument makes a lot more sense than what many of the Obama haters are saying about how these "Friends of Barack" prove he is a couple of flag pins short of being a full-blooded American. That's nonsense.

For instance, with William Ayers -- the unrepentant domestic terrorist who Obama first claimed was just a guy who lived in his neighborhood but with whom we now know the Illinois senator had a more substantial relationship -- the issue isn't Obama's patriotism but his truthfulness.

Still, it was obviously a mistake for McCain to bring up Ayers during the debate. The tactic backfired. In the CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, 62 percent of debate watchers said Obama's connection to Ayers mattered to them "not much" or "not at all." Only 23 percent said it mattered "a great deal."

McCain should leave it to the press to mine the question of whether Obama has been totally honest about his relationship with Ayers -- well, at least those in the press who haven't already sent in requests for tickets to the Barack Obama inaugural ball.

As for McCain, he is an American hero who has given his life to public service, and the country is better for it. That record of service need not come to an end. He can still contribute and finish out his term in the Senate. But, unless the political wind changes -- and quickly -- a promotion to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue doesn't appear to be in the cards.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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