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Local discussion after debate sees little shift

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 15, 2008 - A bipartisan panel of local lawyers, scholars and political leaders who watched Wednesday night’s final presidential debate suggested that the political momentum was on the side of Democratic nominee Barack Obama. But some members added that it was still too early to say that GOP challenger John McCain couldn’t win in November.

The panel discussed the chances of both candidates following a debate party, sponsored by St. Louis University Law School at the Moolah Theatre in Midtown. Two panelists, former Missouri Gov. Bob Holden and Rep. Margaret Donnelly, said Obama enjoyed a commanding lead that McCain would have difficulty turning back in several important states, including Virginia, Florida and Ohio. Donnelly, a Democrat, said voters favored Obama because they were concerned about the economy and pocketbook issues.

But Holden said McCain “has an opportunity to come back” if a major international crisis shifts the focus away from the economy.

Another panelist, attorney Jay Kanzler, added the 24-hour TV news system “loves scandal” and “something along that line” could hurt Obama. Kanzler, a Republican, also said the GOP wouldn’t be able to make up a deficit in public support in the next three weeks. He said, “I don’t see how John McCain could put together a coalition that could put him on top. I don’t think the numbers are there.”

He said McCain’s focus on the judicial selection issue could help him, but Donnelly said the Supreme Court wasn’t even among the top 20 issues that are of concern to voters.  

Holden, a Democrat, also said that Obama had helped himself by staying focused on specific issues, such as education and rebuilding the middle class. He said Republicans had hurt themselves through budget cuts in areas such as  health, which the party had assumed would “cut off poor people” but ended up affecting money that went into the medical profession and hospitals and driving money out of the economy.

Holden added that Obama faced a problem similar to that of John F. Kennedy, both of whom were relatively young presidential candidates and were perceived as lacking experience. But Holden said Obama has since “crossed the threshold” with people having confidence in him and now telling themselves, “Yes, I can see him as president of the United States. They look to the candidate that gives them hope. I think that at the end of the day that means something.”

Donnelly says, “People are now comfortable that he (Obama) can handle it. They see him as president. Unless there’s an international incident, people will focus on the economy.”

The downside, Donnelly said, is whether people will have enough incentive to actually get out and vote. She thinks the turnout will be substantial, predicting an upsurge of young voters, but she added that nobody could say whether all those who have registered will actually show up at the polls on Election Day.

Although most panel members suggested the downturn had helped Obama, they also said Republicans alone weren’t the blame for the nation’s economic problems.

Others on the panel were David Stokes, policy analyst for the Show Me Institute; May Scheve-Reardon, chair of the Missouri State Democratic Party; Thomas Greaney, director of the Center for Health Law Studies at St. Louis University; Matthew Bodie, Anders Walker, and John Ammann, all affiliated with St. Louis University Law School. Ed Martin, former chief of staff for Gov. Matt Blunt was scheduled to take part but did not attend. 

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.