OXFORD, MS -- The spinners started doing their business well in advance of Friday night's long-awaited - and almost canceled - first presidential debate. There was South Carolina senator Lindsay Graham holding forth in the "Spin Alley" section of the media tent confiding that he had told fellow Republican John McCain, "I said he could say something critical about Obama. Just don't overdo it."
That was either disingenuous or revealing or both. Much of what was said was predictable, especially when the politician spinners were asked about the pending congressional deal on a financial rescue package -- the one that, depending on party and perspective, Senator McCain either almost blocked or helped to facilitate with his on-again, off-again attitude toward appearing.
John Kerry, when asked if he was ready to sign off on the package, said, "Yeah. Tomorrow." Queried about the four particulars that Democratic candidate Barack Obama wanted as add-ons to the bailout bill, the Democrats' 2004 standard-bearer was emphatic. "All of them" were included, he said. But...pause: Mississippi-One, Mississippi, Two...it turned out that he wasn't sure about Obama's wish for a surefire way to re-negotiate mortgages for home-owners in danger of foreclosure.
Nobody seemed real sure, but they all professed nervous optimism that a package was coming which everybody could feel good about.
They felt the same way about the debate, talking a civics-text line about the likelihood of candid but friendly exchanges. Novelist and sometime Oxford resident John Grisham was advising otherwise on such of the several LCD screens that filled the cavernous room, seven to a row, as were showing MSNBC.(Fox and CNN each had their watchers too.) "I expect them to be combative." As a "lifelong yellow dog Democrat," he said to host David Gregory, he feared that Obama would be too passive. The reason: The Illinois senator, like Grisham, had taught law and might be inclined to be "condescending."
As for the pols themselves out in the tent, they tended to favor the chances of whichever candidate shared the same party label as themselves. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani thought McCain would do just swell, and governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat who had nursed presidential hopes himself, was more negative toward the Arizonan, whom he blamed for exacerbating the financial emergency with his mid-week insistence on returning to Washington to participate in the ongoing bailout talks.
Unlike Grisham, another Mississippi Democrat, former Governor Ray Mabus, fairly brimmed with confidence for Obama when he ambled through Spin Alley -- if not on style points Friday night, then at least regarding the Democrat's election-day chances in red-state Mississippi. "I think there's still some resentment here toward McCain's almost scuttling this thing," Mabus said.
The former governor extended that optimism to the rest of the Democratic field running in Mississippi this year, including another Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove, who's going for the Senate against Republican Roger Wicker, the former congressman appointed by GOP governor Haley Barbour to fill the seat vacated by Trent Lott.
"Just look at what Childers did!" noted Mabus, meaning Travis Childers, the Democrat who defeated Southaven mayor Greg Davis in a series of interim elections earlier this year to determine who would succeed Wicker in Congress. As Mabus pointed out, Childers' vote kept rising, fast enough to overcome an ever-mounting vote for Davis as well.
"I think things are finally balancing out here," Mabus said.
That was something that obviously remained to be seen, and it might well depend on what ended up happening later Thursday in the Gertrude Ford Center for the Performing Arts next door.