Teddy Kennedy helped Obama last night from his easy chair nearly 1,500 miles away from Ole Miss.
No pundit mentioned it last night, though we noticed one aspect of McCain's opening: He incorrectly told the audience that Sen. Kennedy was in the hospital when Kennedy had actually been released.
Not a big deal, maybe Kennedy wasn't released by the time McCain headed toward the stage. But what I think was a big deal was the subliminal message McCain gave as he spoke of Kennedy. It was a screw up right as he left the gate:
I have a sad note tonight, Sen. Kennedy is in the hospital, he's a dearly beloved friend to all of us, our thoughts and prayers go out to a lion of the Senate........and Jim, I've been not feeling too great....
He opened up reminding people of death and illness and carelessly connected it to himself. Huge mistake. He made a subliminal statement: Sen. Kennedy might die and I'm not feeling well myself.
"Kennedy is old and sick and at the end of his era. I am old and sick and at the end of my era."
It's hard to recover from that, particularly when your opponent is youthful and energetic.
If I wipe my partisan slate clean and think about the substance of last night's responses and the effect on voters, I would say the debate was a wash. Both men had high and low points, but McCain's subliminal message: "I am over, I am past, I am on my way out" sunk his performance.
It didn't stop with connecting himself with Kennedy's health. His body language was stiff and turned in on itself, he wouldn't physically reach out of his rigidity bubble.
And he didn't save himself, he started with the long anecdote about Eisenhower, told the tired jokes about the bears in a way to telegraphed that he didn't even think it was funny anymore, did the tired bracelet anecdote, and generally reminded people of his 20th centuryness.
The message: grumpy, stiff, stuck in history against energetic and expansive in a time when people are stuck in an emotional and physical energy crisis.
If I were in the McCain camp, I'd be shaking my head at this aspect of his performance and in despair about the fact that though their guy held his own substantively, the polls showed that people were overwhelmingly looking for Obama to do well enough, to hold his own. He did that and he won hands down.
It's a change election and a stiff, grumpy old man can't take that on.