Jim Fallows (before the questions about the “cone of silence”) suggested the following points about McCain’s relatively smooth performance at Saddleback:
1) There were no follow-up questions — and the initial questions were less in-your-face even than some of McCain’s town halls. [This allowed McCain to deliver the stream-of-consciousness monologues that are his trademark, often not answering the actual question.]
2) There was relatively little pressure on McCain, because it was a basically friendly crowd [and because McCain had already made peace with the agents of intolerance well to the right of Saddleback].
3) The Obama campaign and its allies should all now stress that this shows what a great debater McCain is and that debating is not Obama’s strong suit– building up expectations so that McCain’s predictably poor performance in the actual debates (with gotchas and follow-up and a live opponent) will be seen as a debacle.
Update On NBC network news this evening, Andrea Mitchell reported that McCain prepared for Saddleback with “a debate coach from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.” In context, this was offered as an explanation for how McCain could have been so responsive without cheating. How far McCain has come in his political persona since 2000!